'A Dangerous Business'
With Lowell Bergman
Friday, Jan. 10, 2003; 11 a.m. ET
Each year, six thousand Americans lose their lives on the job. Tens of thousands more are seriously injured or exposed to deadly poisons and carcinogens in the workplace. Yet if one of those workers dies on the job due to a company's willful disregard for federal safety regulations, the maximum penalty his employer faces is just six months in prison. Are America's workplace safety laws tough enough? And are companies being held responsible for protecting the safety of their employees?
FRONTLINE investigates workplace safety in one of America's most dangerous industries on "A Dangerous Business," airing Thursday, Jan. 9, at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings), correspondent and writer Lowell Bergman was online to talk about what he learned on Friday, Jan. 10.
The transcript follows.
An award-winning reporter, producer and journalism consultant, Bergman has produced and worked on numerous Frontline films, including "Hunting bin Laden"; the June 2001 "Blackout," exploring the California energy crisis; "Drug Wars"; and "Murder, Money and Mexico," a 1997 report on corruption in the former Mexican president Carlos Salinas administration. He began as a print reporter, co-founded the non-profit Center for Investigative Reporting in 1977 and helped launch "20/20" for ABC News in 1978. He was a producer for CBS's "60 Minutes" for 14 years, winning numerous Emmy awards and a Peabody Award for investigative reporting. His most famous story focused on the tobacco industry, dramatized in 1999's Academy Award-nominated film "The Insider." Currently, Bergman is a contract reporter and TV consultant to the New York Times and is a visiting professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.
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Cambridge, Mass.: How does OSHA determine how big the penalties are going to be for violations? Does it make sure that it at least collects the financial savings the company realized from violating health and safety laws in the first place? If not, it doesn't seem like the penalties will provide any financial incentive to companies to avoid future violations.
Lowell Bergman: Well, I'm not an expert on the penalties and what goes with what. I'd suggest that you could go to the OSHA Web site for more details.
The general principle is, OSHA was not set up as much to penalize companies as to prevent future injuries.
For example, the OSHA inspectors invented in the early 1980s a policy called the "egregious violator policy." It allowed them to take the very small fines they were allowed to impose and multiply them by the number of workers injured. The maximum in those days was $7,000; they could multiply that times the number of workers who might be affected, for instance, by a defective light socket. I'm not aware of anywhere in the OSHA statutes that there's any way to recover the profits made by a violator. Clearly one of the weakest regulatory enforcement programs in existence.
Charlotte, N.C.: I am a recent graduate of Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania and have a degree in safety and environmental management. I watched your program "A Dangerous Business" and my frustration has grown due to the lack of interest of companies to hire me. I have found workers to be used as safety managers when they are not qualified to do so. Have you found companies that actually regard safety as a priority because I have not had much success. If there are please let me know.
Lowell Bergman: We came across American Cast Iron Pipe, which no doubt you saw in the documentary. I would suggest contacting Patrick Tyson, who is an attorney in Atlanta, Ga., former OSHA administrator under Reagan, who represents many Fortune 500 companies in setting up health and safety monitoring programs.
Marshall, Tex.: How does Tyler Pipe's record compare with other East Texas steel mills and plants?
Lowell Bergman: First of all, one of the facts we learned was that OSHA said by law that they couldn't tell us which plant was safer than another. So there's no way to find out -- something we haven't mentioned in the stories.
I would suggest contacting John Nash in Palestine, Tex. He is the retired head of the steelworkers in Texas and a member of the workers compensation board of the state, and very knowledgeable about workers's safety in the area.
Peace River, Alberta, Canada: Would it be fair to say that affirmative actions laws and the demonization of what were once considered "white male" professional associations such as the ASM, the ASME, ASCE and many others has contributed to the return of pre-union draconian labor practices? And would it be inaccurate to further imply that this has resulted in a severe shortage of intelligently capable minds in the American industrial labor force?
It can not be denied that even as recently as the 1970s these professional associations had not only the political clout but also the political will to bring about almost any changes they desired on the American industrial horizon.
Was the ASM even consulted by the Frontline reporter? They would seem to me to be an invaluable source of information when it comes to production standards in any metals industry.
Lowell Bergman: Our job was to report the facts as we found them. We focused on the conditions we discovered first in Tyler, Tex., and then on a journey through the McWane empire and its competitors.
In terms of this organization, I'm familiar with them, and should we do a broader story, we probably will.
Montlake, Wash.: How does ACIPCO's profit-sharing plan work? Could other corporations realistically copy it?
Lowell Bergman: ACIPCO has a Web site, and I'd suggest you contact them directly. I don't know the mechanics of profit sharing, except in part what we reported, it's employee-owned and there's profit sharing for retirees. Health care for retirees as well. When we were there the employees had voted to upgrade the cafeteria, and the workers knew that it would cost $1 million out of there profit-sharing program.
The CEO doesn't have his own reserved parking space, which tells you something. He said he had to get there early.
Seattle, Wash.: If McWane's strategy is to cut overhead at struggling plants to make them profitable, could the company really succeed if it spent as much on safety and amenities as ACIPCO does?
Lowell Bergman: I have no idea. There are people who we talked with on background connected to the upper management of McWane who claimed that some of their plants, as we indicated in the stories in the New York Times and on the air, that there are some McWane plants that are better than others. The executives said that some of the better plants are very profitable. The normal corporate executive will say to you that a plant with happy workers who are safe is much more profitable than would be a plant operated by robots operating as cogs in the wheel. McWane executives will tell you the same thing. The important thing is how it is carried out on the factory floor.
Villa Ridge, Mo.: I watched the "Frontline" program last night and am outraged at Mcwane's disregard for employee safety. My question is, have you found any evidence that Mcwane has been paying the inspectors off? I always thought OSHA had more power than what was discussed.
Lowell Bergman: We heard allegations that inspectors had been paid off, but they are very general, unsubstantiated assumptions. When we asked people where were the OSHA inspectors, the answer was that we always seemed to know when they were coming.
More likely was that people did not understand and I did not understand until I did this story, is that OSHA cannot conduct surprise inspections. The only way they can do random inspections is a computer program that picks out companies for inspection in a somewhat random manner, with certain factors weighted in. That tells the OSHA inspectors where to go. Otherwise, the only way they can go to a company to do an inspection, if there is a report of a death, the plant has to call OSHA, or if there's a news report or some kind of specific information from someone inside the plant reporting unsafe conditions. The critics of OSHA who want more enforcement will tell you that at the current rate of inspection, OSHA will look into conditions at every workplace in America in 100 years -- it would take them 100 years to inspect every workplace in America, given their resources.
Arlington, Va.: If I had to choose between climbing into an operating machine pit and losing my job, I would choose losing my job.
Why would these people choose to work in such a dangerous job?
Lowell Bergman: In the case of Tyler Pipe and what we've been told in that region, there are not a lot of jobs for semi-skilled people that pay more than minimum wage. Tyler Pipe is a steelworkers plant; not everyone's covered by the contract, but it pays relatively well. And that's what you hear from almost everyone who is working or has worked there. Again, someone very close to the upper management of the company told us they are not looking for people who are motivated, they are looking for people who will produce. In the foundry process that means people who will do what they're told and not question it. The description of the operating process in the McWane plant has been described as militaristic, meaning that the worker on the floor reports to a supervisor, who reports to a manager, and so on, and you don't break the chain of command. You wouldn't last there very long if you said I'm not going down into that pit to fix that machine, and you wouldn't be able to appeal to upper management.
Washington, D.C.: Have any of the victim's families of a death or disabling injury at a McWane foundry file a lawsuit for damages or compensation?
Lowell Bergman: Yes. In fact, if you know how the system works, if you're just injured, you can't sue, because you're covered by workman's comp, and that gives the employer immunity. If you're killed, you could sue, in most states, although workman's comp would offer you a settlement. If you take the workman's comp settlement, you can't sue. In California, if you're killed on the job, your family would get $160,000 maximum, spread out over an estimate of the rest of your working life if you had lived. If your family accepts that money, let's assume they need to make rent payments, they can't sue. To sue and win, they have to prove some form of negligence. So in the case, for instance of Frank Wagner in Almyra, N.Y., or Rolan Hoskin in Tyler, Tex., that we reported on, the families did get settlements, in both cases approximately two years, until McWane agreed that they were at fault in some fashion. The settlement in Almyra, as we understand it, was relatively small because McWane never plead guilty to responsibility. In the Hoskin case, in which they did plead guilty to a misdemeanor as a corporation, they have settled with the Hoskin family, and according to OSHA have agreed to pay $1 million to OSHA without contesting the negligence claims. Which is very unusual, because usually they contest everything.
Seattle, Wash.: What is the role of the news media in prodding corporations to be good stewards of their workers? Can the media, comprised of corporate entities dependent on corporate dollars for ad revenue, be as effective a check against bad business as as it can against bad government? What changes do you hope will spring from your (very good) report on McWane's morally bankrupt business approach?
Lowell Bergman: I have quite a bit of experience reporting on corporate behavior, both doing it with independent operations in early in my career, in the underground press, to magazines like Rolling Stone, to regional newspapers and television, and television news programs, to papers like the New York Times and public television. So what I can say is that it's always different in different venues. The roots of in-depth reporting in the United States were in reporting on business and corporations -- the era known as the muckrakers, and reporters like Upton Sinclair and Lincoln Steffens. There's a long tradition in doing this kind of reporting. Just because an outlet is owned by a corporation doesn't mean it won't report on another corporation. There is traditionally a lot of tension in media organizations between the workers and the owners. In the case of the New York Times, there was instant and total support for this project, as well as the collaboration with public television in the United States and Canada. So, to paraphrase the director of OSHA, the proof will be in the pudding.
That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.
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