Treading dangerously: Lax safety inside Goodyear tire plants

AP News
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Posted: Dec 14, 2017 10:46 AM
Treading dangerously: Lax safety inside Goodyear tire plants

Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. is among the deadliest manufacturers in the nation for workers - resulting in deaths of five workers since 2015 - and the company's safety lapses have also contributed to deaths of motorists on the road, a six-month investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting has found.

Tires involved in three fatal accidents were manufactured in Goodyear plants in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and Danville, Virginia, where intense production demands and leaks in the roof during storms have endangered both workers and consumers, Reveal's investigation found.

Police listed a Goodyear Wrangler SilentArmor tire - among more than 40,000 tires the company later recalled - as a cause of the crash that killed Matthew Smith and Kerrybeth Hall in West Texas in 2011.

"Use of these tires in severe conditions could result in partial tread separation which could lead to vehicle damage or a motor vehicle crash," the company stated in a letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

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This article was provided to The Associated Press by the nonprofit news outlet Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting. To read - or publish - a full version of this investigation go to: www.revealnews.org/deadlytread

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Goodyear noted it had been monitoring problems with the SilentArmor tires since at least May 2010, 15 months before the deaths of Smith and Hall, two friends on their way to college.

The tire in Smith and Hall's crash was made in Fayetteville. So was the tire on Harry Patel's Nissan Pathfinder, which separated in 2012, causing the SUV to flip and land in a ditch in Michigan and leaving Patel a partial quadriplegic.

At least two other people died in accidents over the last five years, the most recent in 2013, after tires made at Goodyear's Danville, Va., plant failed.

"The shocking collapse of safety controls at Goodyear's plants has inflicted immeasurable losses on the many families of Goodyear customers killed in avoidable tragedies," said John Gsanger, an attorney for the families of Patel and Hall.

A tire industry expert testifying for the Hall family blamed design and manufacturing flaws for weakening the Goodyear tire before it failed, according to court records. Goodyear's lawyers insisted the tires were safe and said the truck must have hit an object that caused the tire to separate. Goodyear settled with the family for an undisclosed amount.

After hearing arguments from Patel's lawyers in a separate suit that Goodyear had ramped up production, compromising the quality of its tires, a jury awarded him $16 million — one of the largest product liability awards in Michigan's history.

While acknowledging past workplace accidents, Goodyear's senior director of global environmental health, safety and sustainability said the company's tires are safe for consumers.

"Each stage of the process, that raw material, that component is tested, and that finished tire is tested for quality," Ellis Jones said. "So we're very confident about the quality of our product."

Reveal interviewed dozens of current and former Goodyear workers and analyzed hundreds of federal and state agency documents and court records from seven states.

A dozen former workers at the company's Fayetteville and Danville plants have given sworn statements criticizing the plant's practices, according to court filings in the Hall and Patel cases and other lawsuits. In interviews with Reveal, more than seven other former Goodyear workers blamed intense production demands and leaks in the plants' roofs during rain storms for weakening some tires, potentially causing them to separate and fail.

In interviews, several former employees recalled a quota-driven motto invoked on the shop floor: "Round and black and out the back."

"The pressure to get the job done was very intense," said Joel Burdette, who worked as an area manager at the company's Union City, Tennessee, plant before it closed in 2011. Burdette then took a similar job at the Danville plant, leaving in 2014.

"That was a motto: Anything goes, as long as it goes onto the truck and gets shipped out," he said.

James Goggins, who retired from the Danville plant in 2014, recalled how rainwater leaked through the roof and gushed through manholes in the plant. "You can look down and see that water is shooting up from the floor like fire hydrants and flooding the department," he said.

But Jones said Goodyear workers can shut down equipment at any time.

"If there is a roof leak in a facility_and I'm not going to say we don't have roof leaks in a facility_that local management team will put a process in place to fix the roof leak," Jones said. "There are also processes in place, safety systems in place, to make sure people are not in a hazardous situation."

The tire giant is among the deadliest manufacturers in the nation for workers, Reveal's analysis of data from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration shows. Reveal analyzed eight years of OSHA fatality data for manufacturers in the United States and found that Goodyear ranks among the top five for worker deaths during that time.

Since August 2015, five Goodyear workers have been killed - four of them at the Danville, Virginia, plant in one year alone.

Charles "Greg" Cooper, a maintenance mechanic on the graveyard shift at the Danville plant, died last year after he was sent alone into a machine pit. He set to work replacing a broken rope that wicked oil from wastewater swirling in the pit. Rubber, hooks and wires lay strewn around him on the floor near the pit, where steam rose from the boiling water.

Federal rules require a safety guard or cover on any openings in the floor. But about six months earlier, an electric pump had been removed, and "there was still a huge hole left directly over the pit," records show.

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Cooper fell into the pit of hot water, where he was boiled alive.

"A firm in which five workers are killed over 18 months is clearly a firm in which the management is not adequately focused on worker safety," said David Michaels, who led OSHA under President Barack Obama and now is a professor at George Washington University's Milken Institute School of Public Health.

Soon after the accident, Greg Kerr, the plant's manufacturing director, told a local newspaper that Goodyear would work with safety investigators.

Yet an investigator from the Virginia Occupational Safety and Health Program noted after the accident that Goodyear was "slow to respond to any request, encouraging employees to not cooperate."

Jones called the company's workplace deaths "an unusual situation."

"We reacted after every incident," he said. "We did have to take a step back and say, 'Let's look at the system within Danville and identify the gaps in the system, and let's close those gaps.'"

After serious workplace accidents, the company's managers have clashed with investigators and admitted to regulators that they ignored lapses, Reveal found.

In settlements with the Virginia regulators after lapses that included the four Danville deaths, Goodyear admitted it had violated workplace safety and health laws more than 100 times. The company agreed to a reduced fine of $1.75 million earlier this year.

Since October 2008, Goodyear has been fined more than $1.9 million for nearly 200 health and workplace safety violations, far more than its four major competitors combined, Reveal's analysis shows. But its track record has received scant national attention, and the publicly traded company has continued to profit from clients, including the U.S. military.

Shifting politics in Washington stand to further insulate companies such as Goodyear. President Donald Trump's administration is rolling back and postponing protections in keeping with goals laid out by the National Association of Manufacturers, a prominent industry group.

Richard Kramer, Goodyear's chairman, chief executive officer and president, serves on the association's board.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. - a member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions - said lobbyists for dangerous companies should not be permitted to dismantle workplace protections.

"President Trump and Republicans in Congress have taken one whack after another at regulations that make sure workers are safe on the job," Warren said in a statement to Reveal.

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This article was provided to The Associated Press by the nonprofit news outlet Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting. To read - or publish - a full version of this investigation go to: revealnews.org/deadlytread, Reveal's Jennifer Gollan can be reached at jgollan@revealnews.org. Follow her on Twitter: @jennifergollan.