Steel mills have always been associated with dangerous work. Google “steel mill accident” and you’ll likely find a long list of tragic scenarios that have happened over the decades. And even though the steel industry has been greatly reduced in the U.S., one can still find incidences today of deaths associated with work in those noisy, hot, bustling workplaces.
U.S. Steel is one of those corporations that has a long legacy of dangerous workplace conditions, and one of the ways in which many steel workers died was due to exposure to asbestos in those U.S. Steel facilities. Even today, you’ll find stories about the company being penalized for exposing workers to the toxic mineral.
Recently, U.S. Steel was fined some $170,000 for exposing seven current employees to asbestos, assigning them tasks that put them into direct contact with the hazardous material.
In this instance, five employees were ordered to remove and replace packing material that contained asbestos, and two others burned and removed a rotted section of pipe. The pipe later tested positive for asbestos.
The company was cited for similar violations just a few years before, nearly 40 years after guidelines for the use and handling of asbestos in the workplace were issued.
“Once again, we have found U.S. Steel Corp. failed to protect its employees from the serious risks of asbestos exposure. Breathing airborne asbestos fibers can cause lung damage that often progresses to disability and possible death,” said Christopher Robinson, director of OSHA’s Pittsburgh Area Office.
Specifically, the company failed “to establish a regulated area and inform employees of the presence of asbestos, to conduct initial employee monitoring, and is said to have used air improperly in maintenance and repair operations and did not provide employee training or utilize appropriate containment and disposal methods,” reported Action News 4 Pittsburgh.
Of course, this legacy of employee abuse in regards to asbestos exposure goes way back to the steel company’s earliest years.
A Brief History of U.S. Steel
U.S. Steel was founded in 1901, the result of a merger of three smaller companies – Carnegie Steel Company, Federal Steel Company, and National Steel Company. It was originally headquartered in the Empire Building in Manhattan’s Financial District and soon began adding to its riches by purchasing other businesses, including its largest competitor – Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Company – in 1907.
It quickly became the largest steel producer and the largest corporation in the world. In its first full year of business, U.S. Steel produced 67 percent of all steel manufactured in the United States.
It remained an important producer of steel throughout World Wars I and II, and during the latter, it employed some 340,000 individuals in a variety of positions at many different facilities. But trouble was on the horizon about a decade later when Harry Truman attempted to take over the steel mills in 1952 in order to resolve a union issue with the United Steelworkers of America.
He was unsuccessful, but 10 years later John F. Kennedy won his war against the steel industry, convincing them to reverse price increases, worried that steel prices were getting out of control.
In the 80s and 90s, things began to go south. The government stopped the company from acquiring National Steel in 1984. In addition, the company stopped focusing on just steel and chose to diversify, acquiring Marathon Oil in 1982 and eventually became USX Corporation, naming U.S. Steel a major subsidiary.
That moved turned out not to be a positive one. Add to that the competition from overseas steel producers, and it’s easy to understand why U.S. Steel suffered a severe decline.
By the 21st century, the company was now realizing most of its profits from its energy holdings, and by 2010, the once robust employee base at the steel giant was reduced to about 52,000.
U.S. Steel’s Environmental Record
Through the years of the 20th century, U.S. Steel had a particular poor environmental record, wreaking havoc on the air and water of many of the locales in which it operated.
One of the first examples of their negligence occurred in Donora, Pennsylvania in 1943 in an incident dubbed “The Donora Smog”. The smog was the result of sulfur dioxide and hydrogen fluoride emissions from the company’s Donora Zinc Works and American Steel and Wire plant in this small city in Western PA.
While the emissions were always a concern, the day of the great “smog” happened because of a peculiar weather condition in which a warmer layer higher in the atmosphere trapped pollution in a layer of colder air near the surface.
This is called a weather inversion. During the incident, 20 people died but hundreds more suffered with lung and heart ailments for the rest of their lives.
This and other emission releases caused U.S. Steel to be dubbed one of the worst corporate air polluters in U.S. history. They were also cited numerous times for water pollution issues. Sites in Fairless Hills, Pennsylvania (near Philadelphia) and Gary, Indiana were of special concern.
U.S. Steel’s Employee Safety Record
Asbestos was always used abundantly in U.S. Steel plants, but – for several decades – employees didn’t give a second thought to working amidst the material. No one told them just how dangerous it was to breath in those errant asbestos fibers that they’d find circulating through the air throughout many spots inside the company’s numerous plants.
After all, asbestos was placed in these mills in order to protect employees. Asbestos insulation would line high-temperature machinery such as boilers, tanks, furnaces, ovens, generators, and more. That’s because some of this equipment would reach temperatures of up to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
In addition, employees would wear protective gear woven from asbestos materials for the same reason – to protect them from burns and fires. Asbestos masks were literally tied onto their faces, so employees couldn’t help but inhale those loose fibers. Sadly, the very material that should have been keeping them safe was making them sick…but they didn’t know it.
More infuriating was the fact that many U.S. Steel executives were more than familiar with the dangers of asbestos exposure yet the use of materials containing the toxic mineral continued until EPA warnings were finally issued in the late 1970s. But for most, it was too late to stop the eventual diagnosis of mesothelioma or some other asbestos-related disease.
U.S. Steel and Asbestos Litigation
Eventually, employees figured out that their exposure to asbestos and their diagnoses of mesothelioma or asbestosis were a result of negligence, and many began to file lawsuits against U.S. Steel, their subsidiaries, and the companies that made the asbestos-containing materials they encountered on a daily basis.
The number of cases rose each year and the company reported at the end of 2005 that there were more than 14,000 asbestos-related lawsuits naming it as a defendant.
By that time, it was already clear that most courts of law recognized U.S. Steel’s negligence in many of the cases that came before them. In 2003, the company was ordered by a jury to pay $250 million dollar to a man suffering from mesothelioma.
He had been employed at U.S. Steel’s Gary, Indiana works for more than 30 years – from 1950 to 1981. In this case, 70-year-old Roby Whittington had worked in a number of different jobs at the Indiana plant but was never warned of asbestos dangers or provided with any gear to protect him from inhalation.
The award included $50 million in compensatory damages and $200 million in punitive payments. At the time, it was the largest asbestos-related award ever for a single plaintiff.
In a document distributed to stock holders in 2009, U.S. Steel addressed their asbestos litigation problem. “Historically, these claims against U. S. Steel fall into three major groups,” they wrote. “(1) claims made by persons who allegedly were exposed to asbestos at U. S. Steel facilities (referred to as “premises claims”); (2) claims made by industrial workers allegedly exposed to products formerly manufactured by U. S. Steel; and (3) claims made under certain federal and general maritime laws by employees of former operations of U. S. Steel.”
Despite a large number of cases, however, U.S. Steel noted in the same document that they weren’t really worried about the impact the litigation would have on the company, adding that it could potentially have an impact on operations for a particular quarter perhaps. But they expected business to continue as usual.
Making a Decision about Litigation
U.S. Steel seems to have a rather cavalier attitude about the asbestos-related suits that continue to hound the company (though they have been declining over the past few years). But for those who have been sickened or have died as a result of asbestos exposure, the arrogance is an insult.
Unnecessary pain and suffering among thousands of employees has been the result of the decisions made by company higher-ups to keep using asbestos and asbestos-containing materials despite their knowledge of the danger they presented.
Those who’ve been harmed by their employment at U.S. Steel facilities or any of the company’s subsidiaries should give serious thought to filing suit in order to earn compensation for their injuries.
While the verdict won’t likely top $250 million, as in the Whittington case, a solid, well-informed mesothelioma attorney should be able to craft a case that could result in an award that will help address the costs of issues such as medical bills, lost wages, and much more.
An initial consultation with an attorney experienced in fighting big corporations such as U.S. Steel is generally free of charge and will assist the lawyer in determining whether the case is indeed viable.
If he/she chooses to take the case and the plaintiff decides to proceed, there is usually no cost to the plaintiff unless an out-of-court settlement is reached or an award is given at the end of a trial. For most victims of mesothelioma and their loved ones, it’s a win-win situation.