It has been dubbed "one of the most dangerous companies in America". Tonight, an exclusive and very rare look inside Tyler Pipe. What goes on there? And is it really as bad today as the national media is reporting?
It's been just over 2 weeks since the PBS program "Frontline" ignited a firestorm of intense scrutiny on one of East Texas' largest employers. As a result, Tyler Pipe is facing talk of possible congressional hearings into safety practices, and unprecedented criticism in media outlets from coast to coast. In 1995, the huge foundry on highway 69 near downtown Tyler, was purchased by McWane, Incorporated. The safety record since that time is not good by anyone's standards. Hundreds have been injured. Some injuries have involved loss of limbs. And 3 workers have died... The most recent in June of 2000. To say Tyler Pipe's relationship with the media has been strained, would not be going nearly far enough. As "Frontline" reported, statements from Tyler Pipe officials come only in writing, and video from inside the plant is virtually non-existent. Until now.
Three hours of videotape. Some taken in 1999, some in 2000... None of it ever intended for broadcast. "He said 'we can't even use that because that stuff would be the final nails in our coffin,'" says Ron Whitting of A.F. Productions. Ron Whitting owns the company that shot the tape. He recalls the conversation he had with the Tyler Pipe safety supervisor who hired him to create a employee training video. "Basically some of the employees not wearing masks, some not wearing the proper attire when working with hot metal... He did not want that in the video at all," says Whitting. Ron says he left it out in order to get paid for his work. This is the first time it's been seen by the public, or virtually anyone outside Tyler Pipe.
"There may be violations here that there's no way for you or me or an expert to see," says Tommy Gilbreath. Gilbreath has been teaching OSHA education to students for 25 years. He's been certified by the Department of Labor since 1988 to teach OSHA standards to businesses and industries.
"A foundry is going to be a dirty place", says Gilbreath. "But housekeeping in my opinion is a major problem there." Gilbreath looked at the 2000 tape as well as one that was shot a year earlier. In 1999, after production was halted, more than 100 attornies were allowed inside with cameras to to gather evidence for a lawsuit involving possible harm done to employees from exposure to silica dust-- a by-product of the sand used to make pipes and fittings here. "The sand particles themselves are as big as sand particles and that's not harmful. What is harmful is when it gets fractured into very small particles.. What you and I would commonly refer to as dust. And that, when you inhale that it becomes very dangerous it can cause a disease called silicosis."
Shot after shot, the '99 tape shows huge collections of sand and what Gilbreath says is dangerous dust, around machines, on the floors, anywhere that provides a landing pad for it to settle. "See that is way too fine to be molding sand," says Gilbreath looking at the tape. "It collected there from being in the air and then collected on that horizontal surface." More troubling, the sight of workers in areas clearly marked "respirators required", because of dust. But the signs are apparently being ignored. "Isn't that amazing," says Gilbreath watching a worker in the area without a safety mask. "And you wonder why? They're uncomfortable, they're hot?" Other signs, not nearly as clear. "Mercy. I'm sure that would be a violation," says Gilbreath reacting to sign half torn off the wall. "It used to say, caution respirator required," he says. Extensive ductwork is used to remove some of the dust from the air. But you wonder about its effectiveness in this condition. "Oh yeah. See that's part of the air evacuation system and you can see there's a huge leak in there," says Gilbreath. Shortly after this viewing, certain there were some deficiencies to be answered to, we contacted Tyler Pipe.
Making clear our intention to broadcast portions of the tape, top management at the plant agreed to let us on site. For 5 hours Tyler Pipe President and General Manager, David Green personally took me on a tour of his plant. Every door was opened, every question answered. As far back as anyone here can remember, the media has never been granted the kind of access we had here today. Green however chose not to talk on camera about the charges swirling about in the national media, or about the video tape we've obtained. Instead, he surprised us... allowing us to take still pictures inside his plant as it is today. In essence, to tell a story with those pictures... a story he says represents 20-million dollars worth of investments over the last year and a half. Investments not only to boost productivity, but to show a new commitment to safety at Tyler Pipe. At nearly every turn, we were shown new equipment or additions brought into the plant since Green's arrival here in 2001. Late last year two main vibratory shakeout systems... major contributors to some of the dust issues we saw in the tapes, were replaced with an enclosed shakeout system, virtually eliminating dust issues in those areas, according to Green. Those mounds of dust shown in the tape were rare during this trip. Only twice in our tour did we see anything resembling the problems pointed out to us on the videotape. New and improved duct systems, says Green, have made a big difference. On the tapes, potential violations, like this discarded piece of equipment in an area marked to be kept clear, were commonplace. "I'm seeing a lot of stuff lying around and it is requirment of OSHA that passageways, aisles and so forth be unimpeded," says Gilbreath. It was apparent during our visit that houskeeping has become a top priority at Tyler Pipe. Power control panels are cordoned off by railing. Organziation is apparent. Green says in some cases new construction in the past 2 years has releived some of the clutter. Housekeeping, dust reduction... those are important issues. But in a plant like this.. "Mechanical hazards are far and away the most prevalent," says Gilbreath. And for this plant, the most deadly.
Green has responded. In 2001, the company developed this guarding system he says exceeds all OSHA regulations. It is impossible to remove these guards for machine repairs, without unplugging one or more of the power cords you see woven through the mesh screens. And Green says there is more. New state of the art core molding machines that take human error and human injury out of the equation... A millroom with better ergonomic design for workers. Green says the improvements are about more than safety. They're about good business. And this is where our story finds some common ground. Our OSHA expert teaches some of the same people Green has managed since his arrival in 2001. And Tommy Gilbreath says they're echoing some of the things we saw and heard on our tour. "We've had students in the past that have complained bitterly about the lack of concern on the part of management on how things are handled safety wise, and environmentally. And then over the last several years, there seems to be pretty much a turn around. There seems to be a much better attitude on the part of the students, employees at Tyler Pipe about their relationship with their employer. In fact that it seems that Tyler Pipe is honestly trying to do a good job with regard to safety and environmental concerns as well." Question is... Is it all too little, too late?