Striving to have a safety and health administration that is judged to be among the best in the nation is an admirable goal all tire and rubber product makers should aim for. It shouldn't take a string of fatalities to make that a priority.
Sadly, that appears to be the impetus to get the ball rolling in that direction at Goodyear's tire factory in Danville, Va., where four fatal accidents occurred during a 12 month period.
On Feb. 10, the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry's Occupational Safety and Health program signed a joint settlement agreement with Goodyear and the United Steelworkers, which represents hourly workers at the Danville facility.
The agreement calls for Goodyear to pay $1.75 million in penalties, with $1 million paid to the commonwealth of Virginia and the rest used by Goodyear to fix the "numerous" hazards found during the 11 inspections VOSH conducted there over the past 18 months.
There also was a commitment that not only will they get rid of the violations, but the parties also will strive to make Danville a national leader in occupational safety and health.
That means the Goodyear facility will work to successfully complete the application process for membership in the Virginia Voluntary Protection Program, a process that could take up to five years.
Everyone quoted in the official announcement said all the right things.
The commissioner of the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry said making Danville one of the safest places to work would be a "tribute to those who lost their lives." The recently named Danville plant manager said he wanted to "assure the Danville community and all my co-workers that nothing is more important to me or Goodyear than the safety of our associates."
And union officials both at Local 831L and at USW headquarters in Pittsburgh said they will continue to mourn the deceased, but they also recognized conditions already had improved through the union, Goodyear and VOSH working together during the investigation and settlement process.
But it shouldn't have come to this. Reading the allegations in the citations issued by VOSH is truly chilling, the details of how four lives ended along with reasons the accidents should have been prevented.
The first victim was caught in machine rollers while trying to adjust them. The second was killed when pinned between a wall and a pallet containing 3,500 pounds of rubber. The third died from burns and drowning after he fell in a pit of boiling water and oil. And the final worker was killed trying to adjust a switch in a machine that hadn't been properly turned off.
As is standard in such cases, Goodyear in the agreement admitted no "civil or criminal liability for any violation or penalty alleged by the commissioner." The VOSH citations, however, do not paint a picture of four fluke accidents, but rather outline a pattern where hazardous conditions were ignored, and no corrective actions taken.
For example, the maintenance mechanic who fell into the pit went to change out a broken oil wick rope at the water recovery pit system on one of the tire plant's mixers. At some point he fell into an unguarded floor opening, and his body wasn't discovered until seven hours later. VOSH alleged in its citation that the floor opening had been unguarded for more than five months after a sump pump was removed, and no corrective actions were taken in the interim.
VOSH also said its investigation into the incident where the worker was crushed by the pallet revealed it was "well known on the work shift that the victim regularly left his work station during machine runs without reporting his whereabouts." Of course the victim had no business taking unapproved rest/sleep breaks, even if the machines ran for hours at a time.
VOSH, however, noted that Goodyear covered such situations in its safety rules and policies, but found no evidence the worker had been disciplined, even though it appeared his activities were common knowledge.
Implementing and enforcing its safety policies would have been "one feasible abatement method" in this case, according to the agency.
Now, safety isn't easy, and it doesn't come cheap. If it were, there would be more employers qualifying for programs such as Virginia's VPP. VOSH said only 44 companies currently have the honor.
There's no denying that the business of manufacturing tires and rubber goods can be dangerous. But if safety is made a priority from the start, then it is an achievable goal. Had the $1.75 million Goodyear is paying in fines and to improve conditions at Danville been spent upfront on safety programs, perhaps the tire maker would be celebrating earning the VPP designation, rather than signing off on a settlement covering four fatal accidents.