Goodyear Tire and Rubber makes tires. They also seem to be good a killing people in a variety of different ways — in cars because of their defective tires, and in workplaces because of their defective safety procedures.
Reveal (Center for Investigative Reporting) writer Jennifer Gollan discusses Goodyear’s special talent in her article Treading dangerously: Lax safety inside Goodyear’s tire plants, which starts by describing the deaths of Matthew Smith and Kerrybeth Hall who were killed in 2011 when the Goodyear tire on their car failed, sending them “smashing through a wire fence before rolling over in the parched plains.” Several months later, Goodyear announced a recall of the defective Wrangler SilentArmor tire that caused their deaths.
Some of the root causes for the defective tires:
Several former employees said they felt pressure to put production before workplace safety. Others recalled a quota-driven motto invoked on the shop floor: “Round and black and out the back.”
“The pressure to get the job done was very intense,” said Joel Burdette, who worked as an area manager at the company’s Union City, Tennessee, plant before it closed in 2011. Burdette then took a similar job at the Danville plant, leaving in 2014.
“That was a motto: Anything goes as long as it goes onto the truck and gets shipped out,” he said.
But Goodyear is also adept at killing workers who make the tires. Between March 2015 and August 2016, four workers were killed in the company’s Danville, VA plant that
manufactures aviation and specialty tires. Virginia state OSHA identified more than 100 violations in 11 inspections, far more than any of the top US tire makers.
- Greg Cooper 53, died on April 12, 2016 when he fell into a vat of hot oil and water.
- Kevin Edmonds, 54 died during his work shift on March 31, 2015 when he became pinned between a wall and a pallet
- Jeanie Lynne Strader, 56, died at the plant in August 2015 when she was caught in a machine that was turned on when she was trying to repair it.
- Billy Scheier died on August 12 when he was struck by a part of a machine that had not been properly turned off before he went in to repair it.
And this past March, James Lay Jr., a contractor, was killed at a Goodyear plant in Topeka, Kansas, when a falling object struck him in the head.
It was far too late. Cooper had been boiled alive.
Cooper’s death was particularly gruesome, as Gollan describes:
Just before midnight on April 11, 2016, Charles “Greg” Cooper, a maintenance mechanic on the graveyard shift, descended alone into a machine pit in the dimly lit basement of the tire plant in Danville.
He set to work replacing a broken rope that wicked oil from wastewater swirling in a huge vat. Rubber, hooks and wires lay strewn around him on the floor near the pit, where steam rose from the boiling water.
Federal rules require a safety guard or cover on any openings in the floor. But about six months earlier, an electric pump had broken, and “there was still a huge hole left directly over the pit,” records show.
Several hours passed before a manager noticed that Cooper was gone and dispatched his co-workers to search the plant. Finally, one of their flashlights sliced through the darkness, its beam illuminating his body, floating face down in the pit. Then came the official call: “Man down!”
It was far too late. Cooper had been boiled alive.
The area surrounding the hole was so greasy that it was “like walking on ice,” according to a Virginia workplace safety investigator. Other Goodyear plants had been previously cited for similar holes in the floor.
“A firm in which five workers are killed over 18 months is clearly a firm in which the management is not adequately focused on worker safety.” — Dr. David Michaels
Scheier’s death was equally tragic:
The Alpha Shear [which cuts rubber for tires] was not shut down when Scheier leaned into the machine to adjust a switch, Virginia workplace safety records show. Moments later, the cutting wheel on the machine surged toward him, pinning him down. His chest was badly bruised. Blood spurted from a puncture wound under his left arm. Emergency responders performed CPR but failed to revive him, a police report shows.
A statement by Scheier’s brother is infuriating: “They won’t allow me to cut the machines off when I work,” Scheier’s brother, Robert, recalled him saying. “Company rules.” Scheier died because the company wanted to save a little time by not shutting down the machine while he repaired it, in clear violation of OSHA’s lockout-tagout standard. It was completely foreseeable and completely preventable. When a Virginia OSHA inspector asked Goodyear officials to temporarily turn off the cutting machine that killed Scheier, the company safety manager refused, saying “It would interfere with production.”
In a bit of an understatement, former OSHA head David Michaels observed that “A firm in which five workers are killed over 18 months is clearly a firm in which the management is not adequately focused on worker safety.”
Virginia OSHA and the United Steelworkers reached an settlement with Goodyear where the company will pay $1.75 million to settle workplace health and safety violations found in inspections following four deaths at the Danville plant. But the settlement also contains some unique arrangements that were called “highly unusual” and “outrageous,” by three unnamed former top federal safety officials. Gollan reports that “Virginia regulators at the time invited the company to apply for the state’s so-called Voluntary Protection Program, which shields companies with exemplary safety programs and below-average injury rates from routine safety inspections.”
Actually, VA OSHA did more than just “invite” Goodyear to apply for OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Programs (VPP). VA OSHA offered to defer payment on $750,000 of the penalty, and reduce four violations for Scheier’s death from “willful” to “serious” if Goodyear makes a “good faith” effort to apply for VPP within five years. Willful violations are the most serious violations OSHA can issue, and can trigger a criminal prosecution if a worker dies as a result of a willful violation of the law. Companies hate willful citations much more than paying the fines that OSHA imposes. VPP is OSHA’s highest safety and health honor, reserved for the best of the best companies.)
So, let’s summarize that again: Goodyear, which has the worst health and safety record in the US tire industry and has killed 5 workers in the last two years, has essentially been given $750,000, not to actually qualify for VPP, but to make a “good faith effort” to qualify for VPP, whatever a “good faith effort” is.
I’d say that “highly unusual,” verging on “outrageous” sounds about right.
Now, let me be clear that OSHA settlements with companies are not necessarily bad. OSHA always has an incentive to settle a case because the agency cannot force a company to fix the hazards until a case is final — which can take years of court cases that OSHA can sometimes lose on a technicality — while workers remain unprotected. So it’s not the settlement itself that’s problematic, it’s what’s in it.
Goodyear responded to the Reveal article, admitting that “Over the past two years, we fell short of our own expectations for safety, and we mourn the loss of valued coworkers at two of our U.S. manufacturing plants. This is unacceptable….Nothing is more important at Goodyear than safety. Our goal is to ensure everyone goes home safely, every day.”
We shall see.
Postscript: Reveal is the website, public radio program, podcast and social media platform of the Center for Investigative Reporting which attempts to “engage and empower the public through investigative journalism and groundbreaking storytelling to spark action, improve lives and protect our democracy.” If you’re looking for contributions to make at the end of the year, this is a good place to donate in these troubling times when the truth matters more than ever.
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