McWane Safety Scandal
The New York Times ran a three-part series by David Barstow and Lowell Bergman in 2004, that exposed the egregious safety record of McWane Inc., a large, privately held Alabama-based sewer and water pipe manufacturer.
Nine McWane employees have lost their lives in workplace accidents since 1995.
More than 4,600 injuries were recorded among the company's 5,000 employees.
According to the series, one man died when an industrial oven exploded after he was directed to use it to incinerate highly combustible paint. Another was crushed by a conveyor belt that lacked a required protective guard.
Three of McWane's nine deaths were the result of deliberate violations of safety standards.
In five others, safety lapses were a contributing factor.
According to the Times, McWane pulled the wool over the eyes of investigators by stalling them at the factory gates, and then hiding defective equipment.
Accident sites were altered before investigators could inspect them, in violation of federal rules.
One former plant manager told of submitting phony water samples to environmental investigators, the Times reported.
When government enforcement officials did find serious violations, “the punishment meted out by the federal government was so minimal that McWane could treat it as simply a cost of doing business.”
“After a worker was crushed to death by a forklift that apparently had faulty brakes, an Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigation found defects in all 14 of the plant's forklifts, including the one involved in the death,” the Times reported. The fine was just $10,500. Employers are further protected by the workers' compensation system, which can make it hard for victims to sue.”
Companies who cause the death of workers on the job rarely face the full force of the criminal law. Manslaughter and negligence prosecutions in workplace death cases have been declining for years — as the dead worker bodies steadily pile up.
According to the Times, in one McWane oven explosion that killed an employee, Frank Wagner, McWane “hired a well-connected lobbyist to lean on Dennis Vacco, then New York State's attorney general, and ended up with a settlement in which it did not admit responsibility for the death.”
The experts who looked at the case determined that the explosion that killed him was the result of reckless criminal actions by McWane, which was operating a cast-iron foundry in Elmira, New York, where Wagner worked.
“The evidence compels us to act,” the prosecution team wrote in a confidential memorandum to Vacco in 1996. The team urged him to ask a grand jury to indict McWane and its managers on manslaughter and other charges. A grand jury inquiry, senior investigators believed, could have taken them up the corporate ladder, the Times reported.
But Vacco never sought an indictment against McWane for any crime.
Only after an unusual intervention by the United States attorney in Buffalo, who threatened federal charges, did McWane agree to plead guilty to a state felony and pay $500,000.
“But as the company and Mr. Wagner's widow are quick to note, that charge, a hazardous-waste violation, specifically did not hold McWane accountable for Mr. Wagner's death,” the Times reported.
“It was a reckless act on the part of certain individuals in that company that caused the death of that person. I'll believe that till the day I die,” says Donald Snell, who supervised the state environmental agency's investigation. “The ends of justice were not met.”
As the Times series showed, in plant after plant, year after year, “McWane workers have been maimed, burned, sickened and killed by the same safety and health failures.”
The Times documented more than 400 safety violations and 450 environmental violations since 1995 alone.
“Yet regulators and law enforcement officials have never joined forces to piece this record together, never taken a coordinated approach to end patterns of transgression,” the Times reported. “Their responses, piecemeal and disjointed, bring into sharp relief weaknesses in government's ability to take on corporations with operations spread far and wide.”
McWane says it is changing — and it's certainly paying more attention to PR after the Times series.
“Over the last several years, our Company has embarked on significant changes that are focused on setting the industry standard in employee safety, health and environmental programs,” asserts a May 2004 report from the company on health and safety. “We have challenged ourselves to go beyond compliance in the development of a state-of the-art safety, health and environmental management system to create a comprehensive program designed to exemplify excellence in environmental, health and safety performance, integrity, service and quality.”
“McWane and its subsidiaries actively promote a safe workplace,” the company asserts. “We have positive and ongoing working relationships with federal, state and local authorities to continuously improve our safety training, workplace technologies, and overall safety programs.”
That doesn't exactly jibe with what company managers call “the McWane way” — what federal and state regulators characterized to the Times as a “lawless” and “rogue” operation that ruthlessly sought profits with disregard for worker safety and well-being.
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