At a Texas Foundry, an Indifference to Life
January 8, 2003
By DAVID BARSTOW and LOWELL BERGMAN
! Additional reporting by James Sandler and Robin Stein.
TYLER, Tex. - It is said that only the desperate seek work at Tyler Pipe, a sprawling, rusting pipe foundry out on Route 69, just past the flea market. Behind a high metal fence lies a workplace that is part Dickens and part Darwin, a dim, dirty, hellishly hot place where men are regularly disfigured by amputations and burns, where turnover is so high that convicts are recruited from local prisons, where some workers urinate in their pants because their bosses refuse to let them step away from the manufacturing line for even a few moments.
Rolan Hoskin was from the ranks of the desperate. His life was a tailspin of unemployment, debt and divorce. A master electrician, 48 years old, he had retreated to a low-rent apartment on the outskirts of town and taken an entry-level maintenance job on the graveyard shift at Tyler Pipe.
He would come home covered in fine black soot, utterly drained and dreading the next shift. "I don't know if I'm going to last another week," his twin brother recalls him saying. The job scared him; he didn't know what he was doing. But the pay was decent, almost $10 an hour, and his electricity was close to being cut off. "He was just trying to make it," his daughter said.
On June 29, 2000, in his second month on the job, Mr. Hoskin descended into a deep pit under a huge molding machine and set to work on an aging, balky conveyor belt that carried sand. Federal rules require safety guards on conveyor belts to prevent workers from getting caught and crushed. They also require belts to be shut down when maintenance is done on them.
But this belt was not shut down, federal records show. Nor was it protected by metal safety guards. That very night, Mr. Hoskin had been trained to adjust the belt while it was still running. Less downtime that way, the men said. Now it was about 4 a.m., and Mr. Hoskin was alone in the cramped, dark pit. The din was deafening, the footing treacherous under heavy drifts of black sand.
He was found on his knees. His left arm had been crushed first, the skin torn off. His head had been pulled between belt and rollers. His skull had split. "If he fought that machine I know his last thought was me," said his daughter, April Hoskin-Silva, her dark eyes rimmed with tears.
It was not just a conveyor belt that claimed Mr. Hoskin's life that warm summer night. He also fell victim to a way of doing business that has produced vast profits and, as the
plant's owners have admitted in federal court, deliberate indifference to the safety of workers at Tyler Pipe.
Mr. Hoskin worked for McWane Inc., a privately held company based in Birmingham, Ala., that owns Tyler Pipe and is one of the world's largest manufacturers of cast-iron sewer and water pipe. It is also one of the most dangerous employers in America, according to a nine-month examination by The New York Times, the PBS television program "Frontline" and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
Since 1995, at least 4,600 injuries have been recorded in McWane foundries, many hundreds of them serious ones, company documents show. Nine workers, including Mr. Hoskin, have been killed. McWane plants, which employ about 5,000 workers, have been cited for more than 400 federal health and safety violations, far more than their six major competitors combined.
No McWane executive would be interviewed on the record. But in a series of written responses, the company's president, G. Ruffner Page, acknowledged "serious mistakes" and expressed deep regret for Mr. Hoskin's death. "Our intensified focus on safety speaks to lessons learned," he wrote. At the same time, he sought to explain and strongly defend the company's business methods.
"Over the years, McWane has grown by the acquisition of troubled companies that had become uncompetitive," he wrote. "Through substantial investment in new plant and equipment and more disciplined management practices, McWane transformed these underperforming companies into efficient and viable operations." Disciplined management, he said, has allowed McWane to stave off foreign competitors who have no regard for safety.
In the last decade, many American corporations have embraced such a vision of capitalism - cutting costs, laying off workers and pressing those who remain to labor harder, longer and more efficiently. But top federal and state regulators say McWane has taken this idea to the extreme. Describing the company's business, they use the words "lawless" and "rogue."
The company's managers call it "the McWane way."
The story of Tyler Pipe, drawn from company and government documents and interviews with dozens of current and former workers and managers, is a case study in the application of the McWane way. It is the anatomy of a workplace where, federal officials and employees say, nearly everything - safety programs, environmental controls, even the smallest federally mandated precautions that might have kept Rolan Hoskin alive - has been subordinated to production, to the commandment to keep the pipe rolling off the line.
Federal safety inspectors tried to make a difference. They cited and fined and cajoled. But for years, records show, little changed.
"You put people at risk," a former senior plant manager at Tyler Pipe said. "We did every day."
Which is why even now the toughest of Tyler Pipe veterans remember the day McWane came to town as the day they were, as one of them put it, "kicked into hell."
Introducing `the McWane Way'
Tyler, a city of 85,000 an hour and a half's drive east of Dallas, began as a stagecoach town, but it came of age around two precious commodities, East Texas crude and some of the finest roses on earth. Oil and roses still help define Tyler, or at least a certain conjured Tyler. The municipal rose garden alone has 38,000 bushes, and the old oil families still carry clout.
But by the early 90's, the shuttered storefronts down by the county courthouse explained why local leaders were so endlessly worried about the care and nurturing of Tyler's contemporary crown jewels - the Kelly-Springfield tire plant, two air-conditioner factories and Tyler Pipe.
These big manufacturers, they knew, represented something extremely valuable and increasingly rare: places where someone with a high school diploma and a strong back could make $15 an hour, where a Mexican immigrant with little English could firmly grasp the next rung.
The pipe foundry occupies several hundred acres northwest of downtown. Its smokestacks rise high above a north and south plant, each with its own cupola, a multistory furnace that melts tons of scrap metal to produce smoky white rivers of molten iron. The molten iron is poured into spinning cylinders to form pipes, into molds of packed black sand to make fittings.
The company would not let a reporter tour the plant. But employees describe simply stepping inside as an overwhelming experience. First is the heat, wave upon wave of it, sometimes in excess of 130 degrees. Then there is the noise - of pipe slamming into pipe, of pneumatic tools that grind and cut, of massive machines that shudder and shake, of honking forklifts and roaring exhaust systems. Dust and fumes choke the lungs and coat the lights, leaving the plant floor a spectral labyrinth of glowing pipes and blackened machinery.
In the early 90's, Tyler Pipe employed about 2,800 people and did about $200 million in business a year. It was modestly profitable, and the owners, the Tyler Corporation, were conventionally paternalistic. They distributed turkeys at Christmas and door prizes at the annual employee barbecue. Regulators said the plant, while far from perfect, made an effort to comply with safety and environmental rules.
In late 1995, the Tyler Corporation sold the foundry to McWane. In one stroke, McWane had bought one of its main rivals and acquired its largest plant.
Within weeks, senior executives flew in from Birmingham and set about executing a plan of stunning audacity: Over the next two years, they cut nearly two-thirds of the mployees, yet insisted that production continue apace. They eliminated quality control inspectors and safety inspectors, pollution control personnel and relief workers, cleaning crews and maintenance workers.
"It got pretty bad," recalled Kevin Fowler, the human resources manager from 1996 to 1999. "If I walked into a department people would wonder if I was coming with their termination."
Alarmed by the layoffs, city leaders sought meetings with McWane executives. Their requests were rebuffed. "They just disassociated themselves from the city," Thomas G. Mullins, the chamber of commerce president, recalled.
To keep up production, McWane eliminated one of three shifts; instead of three shifts of eight hours, there were two 12-hour shifts. At the end of a shift, supervisors often marched through yelling, "Four more hours!" So employees worked 16-hour days, sometimes seven days a week.
Men who operated one machine were ordered to operate three. Breaks were allowed only if a relief worker was available, but McWane had reduced the number of relief workers and forbade supervisors to fill in for hourly workers. The policy hit hardest near iron-pouring stations, where workers had to drink plenty of fluids to withstand the heat. The humiliating result, six workers said in separate interviews, was that men were sometimes forced to urinate in their pants or risk heat exhaustion.
Even the most basic amenities did not survive. The barbecues and 401(k) plan were easy enough targets. But items like soap, medicated skin cream and hand towels were eliminated from the plant stockroom as unnecessary "luxuries," company records show. If they were available at all, they had to be specially ordered with approval from top managers.
Several workers said they were told by their bosses to bring their own toilet tissue. Near the cupola, managers rationed crushed ice for the workers' drinks, company records show. Out by the loading docks, they eliminated portable heaters used by forklift drivers to warm up in winter. "We do not provide comfort heat for individual employees," Dick Stoker, the works manager, explained in a memorandum.
Restrictions were placed on safety equipment. Protective aprons, safety boots and face shields were no longer stocked and readily available. Heavy, heat-resistant $17 gloves were replaced by $2 cloth ones. As a result, workers wrapped their hands in duct tape to protect from burns.
The union was helpless to resist, past and current leaders agree. Organized labor had never been a potent force at Tyler Pipe, and the layoffs devastated the union's membership. The contract barred strikes, permitted 16-hour days and let breaks be canceled.
"My hands was tied," said Bobby Hopson, former president of Local 1157 of the United Steelworkers of America.
Morale plummeted, but profits soared. Senior managers say they were told that Tyler Pipe earned more than $50 million in 1996 - double the reported profits for the five-year period before McWane arrived.
Four years after the takeover, inspectors from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration spent several days taking the measure of the new regime. They found more than 150 safety hazards. They found poorly maintained equipment. They found a work force that was poorly trained, ill equipped, overworked.
"Throughout the plant, molten metal is seen spilling from the cupolas, bulls and ladles," their report said. "The forklift trucks transport the metal, and the ground behind the trucks often smokes with puddles of molten metal. Workers are covered with black residue from the foundry sand. Many work areas are dark, due to poor lighting and clouds of sand. Despite all the ignition and fuel sources, exit paths are not obvious. Many workers have scars or disfigurations which are noticeable from several feet away. Burns and amputations are frequent.
"This facility is located in a relatively small town where jobs are not plentiful. Throughout the plant, in supervisors' offices and on bulletin boards, next to production charts and union memos, is posted in big orange letters: REDUCE MAN HOURS PER TON."
Talking Safety, Walking Danger
Any foundry is filled with dangers seen and unseen. For three of the last four years, the cast-iron foundry industry has recorded the nation's highest injury rates. But the inspectors said they were drawn to Tyler Pipe because its rate was so much higher than the industry average, records show. Even with far fewer workers at Tyler in 1996 than in 1995, more workdays were lost because of injuries, records show.
On paper, the company emphasized safety. "You are expected to work efficiently and as quickly as possible without compromising safety rules or safe practices in any way," the employee handbook states.
But inspectors and workers alike called the safety program a charade. "In essence, they are doing it in `form' but not with substance," the inspectors wrote.
The company prepared extensive written safety rules. But even the most senior supervisors let employees work in clear violation of those rules, the inspectors found. And while the company promised twice-a-week safety inspections, the same hazards showed up week after week.
Ultimately, the inspectors wrote, it came down to incentives: "They have never developed a mechanism to hold supervisors accountable for safety while, on the other hand, they have mastered a system for holding supervisors accountable for production downtime."
Shutting down machines, taking special precautions before entering dangerous pits, putting safety guards on, taking them off - all these safety measures "lengthened the `downtime' taking away from production activities," OSHA inspectors wrote.
It was Elena Glasscock's job to make sure supervisors gave their workers proper safety training. But many supervisors were simply overwhelmed by production demands, she said. What little training they did offer was lost on Tyler Pipe's many Hispanic workers who spoke little English.
"I would ask the supervisor, if this person could not speak English, how did he know what the work instruction said?" she recalled. Last summer, after 28 years at Tyler Pipe, she resigned in disgust.
Experienced workers left in droves. Many were fired under a new "no fault" attendance policy that assessed points for each sick day and half points for arriving late or leaving early. Ten points resulted in dismissal. Others quit because of sudden demotions and pay cuts. Mr. Fowler, the personnel director, said he quit because he tired of being seen as a "monster."
New employees are called "pumpkin heads" because of the orange hard hats they must wear, and each week waves of pumpkin heads arrived. But it was not until pumpkin heads started showing up with electronic monitoring bracelets that people realized the company was recruiting at Texas prisons. Many of the newly released prisoners did not last. They worked up to 16 hours a day, sometimes for 14 days straight, then were fired or quit before they qualified for benefits or union protection.