OHSA finds Beth/Lukens guilty in steelworker death

VALLEY, Pa. – Wanda Smith, 41, a production steel press operator for Bethlehem/Lukens Steel Plate and member of United Steelworkers of America (USWA) Local 1165, went to work December 17, 2001, with her Christmas list almost completed and baking nearly finished. But at quitting time, cookie dough remained untouched in her refrigerator.

Smith did not walk out of the gate. She died at her press, due to company negligence, concluded the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) after a three-month investigation.

According to Chester County Coroner Dr. Rodger Rothenberger, Smith was crushed beneath a moving transfer car weighing between four-and-a-half and five tons. She died instantly. The coroner testified that a malfunctioning switch activated the car.

Based on its finding, the agency ordered full repair of the press and fined Bethlehem/Lukens $49,500 for “serious violations.” OSHA law defines violations as “serious” when “there is substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result and an employer knew or should have known about it,” said OSHA spokeswoman Kate Dugan.

The OSHA investigation found that Bethlehem/Lukens Plate did not stop production at the press when the company knew that the switch engaging the fatal car was malfunctioning. According to safety engineers, Bethlehem knew that it had to “lock out,” turn off the electricity to the press, provide workers with protective equipment and provide, in conjunction with the union, a safe job procedure for operation of the press.

Bethlehem/Lukens also broke the law when it failed to install guards on the press to protect workers. Only companies can assign repair work on machinery.

In 2000, a year before Smith was killed, OSHA cited Bethlehem for failure to add guards on the press for worker protection. Because the company had a previous violation and failed to correct, $35,000 of the $49,500 in fines was the maximum for this single infraction. Company lawyers can have the fines reduced if the company fixes the press.

The USWA and the company are meeting to improve safety in the production area. The company has until July 6 to fix the press and pay the fines.