OSHA Investigating Worker Death at McWane Foundry

December 20, 2012
by Jason M. Breslow Digital Editor

Molton iron is poured at the McWane Inc. owned Tyler Pipe iron foundry in Tyler, Texas. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

Watch the A Dangerous Business, FRONTLINE’s investigation into worker safety at McWane Inc., and A Dangerous Business Revisted, a follow-up to the original film.

Federal officials have launched an investigation into an employee death last week at a cast-iron foundry owned by McWane Inc., the Alabama conglomerate that in 2003 became the focus of a FRONTLINE investigation on workplace safety.

Officials from McWane have confirmed that Michael Donahue, 50, was killed in an industrial accident Friday at its Kennedy Valve factory in Elmira, N.Y. Donahue, who had been with the company for two years, died while repairing a hydraulic tabletop in the factory’s mold department, according to the company.

Donahue’s death is the third fatal accident at the Kennedy Valve factory. In 2004, Timothy Blow was decapitated after falling into a sand-sifting machine at the plant. A subsequent investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) resulted in a $17,000 fine for violations that the company said were not directly related to Blow’s accident. Three years later, OSHA found lingering violations at the plant that the agency said could “expose employees to the dangers of fire, lacerations, amputation, chemical burns, crushing falls, and eye, face and hand injuries” if left uncorrected.

In 1995, an explosion killed Frank Wagner, a 20-year veteran of the plant. New York prosecutors concluded that Wagner’s death was the result of criminal negligence on the part of McWane. The company was not indicted in Wagner’s death, but it did plead guilty to a state felony and paid a $500,000 fine. Wagner is one of 12 McWane employees to have died on the job since 1995, while at least 4,600 others have been injured.

Wagner’s death was included in FRONTLINE’s 2003 film A Dangerous Business, which was produced in partnership with The New York Times and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Our joint investigation uncovered a culture where worker safety often took a backseat to profits. At McWane’s Tyler Pipe factory in Texas, for example, FRONTLINE and The Times found:

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.

Since the film, multiple state and federal investigations have resulted in nearly $20 million in criminal fines, millions more in civil penalties, and convictions for McWane and eight of its executives for environmental, health, and safety violations. The fines and convictions prompted a renewed focus on workers, as well as an executive shakeup and $300 million in safety improvements.

OSHA is now investigating Donahue’s death, but has yet to comment on the probe.

[Update, 12/21/2012]: According to a McWane spokesman, the company’s incident rate at its U.S. facilities has declined by 62 percent since 2002. Since 2000 the incident rate at Kennedy Valve has dropped 90 percent, from 27.7 to 2.69. FRONTLINE was unable to independently verify the company’s internal safety statistics. The average industry rate is 10.9.

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