SPARROWS POINT, Md. – Bethlehem Steel Corp. has had three times as many safety violations and four times as many workplace deaths as any other company in Maryland, an analysis of more than two decades of government records revealed.
Federal and state records from November 1972 to May 1995 revealed 623 safety violations and 26 accidental deaths at Bethlehem Steel’s five Maryland subsidiaries.
Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. had the second-highest accidental death toll of Maryland businesses during the 23 years, with six.
McLean Contracting Co. of Glen Burnie, which builds bridges, tunnels and sewers, amassed the second-highest number of safety violations during the 23 years, at 187. Third was the Anne Arundel-based concrete-laying company, Dance Brothers Inc., with 140 safety violations, Capital News Service’s computer-assisted analysis revealed.
Michael Snead, BG&E’s supervisor of safety and industrial hygiene, attributed the deaths at that company to its size, with up to 9,000 workers at any given time, and the hazards of working with electricity.
“If you make a mistake, the consequences can be tragic,” Snead said.
Officials at McLean and Dance declined to comment.
Clifford Ishmael, manager of human resources at Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrows Point Division in Baltimore County, said the company’s numbers reflect the fact that it is the largest heavy manufacturer in the state, with 4,500 workers at its steel plant and 800 at its shipyard next door.
He added that the safety record has been steadily improving since 1989, due to a joint effort by steel plant and labor officials.
“No fatality is acceptable to us,” Ishmael said.
A 1994 Maryland business directory showed that Bethlehem Steel’s steel plant employs about seven times more workers than the next largest steel plant in the state, Eastern Stainless Corp. of Baltimore. Yet Bethlehem Steel had more than 16 times as many safety violations.
Eastern had 600 workers in 1994 and was cited with 38 safety violations during the 23 years analyzed. It reported no fatalities.
Jo-Ann Orlinsky, administrator of the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health program, said she could not comment directly on Bethlehem Steel’s safety record because she does not know how it compares to similar businesses in other states.
But, she said, “a year has not gone by when we have not done an inspection there.”
State or federal inspectors visit companies that have reported accidents with at least five hospitalized injuries or one death. Inspectors also conduct investigations when employees complain about unsafe work conditions.
In rare cases, inspectors drop in for routine checks, Orlinsky said.
Inspectors for MOSH and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration can fine businesses up to $70,000 for each safety violation, said Leonard Moore, OSHA regional director.
The Pennsylvania-based Bethlehem Steel, which has major facilities in four states, has been fined about $274,000 for its Maryland operations since 1972, OSHA and MOSH records showed.
The corporation employs 4,500 workers. It shut down its other three Maryland subsidiaries – two shipyards and a ship repair facility – in the early ’80s, a company spokeswoman said.
Ishmael said the plant has improved its injury rate significantly since 1989, when the company management and
the steelworkers’ union began to cooperate on safety issues.
OSHA inspection records show that Bethlehem Steel’s safety violations dropped from a peak of more than 100 in 1988 to four in 1994.
But during the same period, the number of accidental deaths slightly increased. Fifteen of the 26 recorded fatalities at Bethlehem Steel occurred in the last five years.
Ishmael said an October death was the first at Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrows Point steel plant in 18 months. In that accident, not yet fully investigated by MOSH, a 55-year-old dump truck driver drowned when he lost control of a truck and drove it into an inlet for ore ships.
Bethlehem Steel’s Maryland shipyard, BethShip, has had two deaths this year, the database and interviews revealed.
Ted Baldwin, a Bethlehem Steel spokesman, called the safety record at the Maryland shipyard “pretty good.” He said it is among the best facilities in the corporation.
Baldwin said management does not want to discuss safety issues while it is contesting an OSHA citation in connection with one of this year’s shipyard deaths. In that May 9 incident, a fire broke out on a ship and killed a 46-year-old employee.
Workers were welding in a confined area without conducting air tests that are required when chemicals have been used, OSHA’s Moore said.
OSHA officials said the company showed “an intentional disregard, or plain indifference to,” OSHA requirements.
At the steel plant, company management and the United Steelworkers of America have created a program to improve employee safety and health.
Ishmael said both sides overcame their mutual distrust when they looked at the statistics in the late ’80s and realized that the numbers weren’t improving.
David Wilson, district director of the United Steelworkers, said reducing hospital care costs was a major reason for the company to step up its efforts.
Both sides said the basic philosophy behind the new approach is to hand responsibility for workplace safety to every worker, not just a few safety officials.
“Our motto is `Friends don’t let friends work unsafely,’ ” Ishmael said.
To promote this attitude, every department and unit of the company has formed a safety team that meets once a week to point out problems and discuss solutions.
Banners reminding employees to “Work Safely!” have been placed at several spots across the plant, and workers occasionally hand out pens with safety messages at the entrance gates.
A joint safety steering committee, comprised of representatives from management and labor, coordinates the efforts. The union appoints safety representatives who respond to employee complaints on a full-time basis.
Employees say they have seen improvements in safety conditions since the program was put in place.
“It’s like night and day,” said Stan Daniloski, 55, an electrician from Perry Hall who has been with the company for 36 years.
“Before, we had a safety supervisor, and he was like a czar. You were afraid to complain about anything because you were afraid of repercussions. Now, everyone seems to have this new mind-set about it.”
Keith Mestrich, a safety and health specialist at the AFL- CIO headquarters in Washington, D.C., said safety measures work best when employees have the opportunity to get involved, as they do at the Sparrows Point Division. “There is no better model for reducing injury and deaths,” he said. -30-