Auto parts plants rack up injury claims


The AJC detailed safety problems last October at Sewon America, a Korean auto supplier in LaGrange, Ga. The newspaper expanded its investigation in 2014 to include all auto parts factories in Georgia and Alabama and to break down the findings by nationality.

Reporter Dan Chapman used federal, state and corporate records to create a spreadsheet of 221 companies that supply the automakers in Georgia and Alabama — Kia, Hyundai, Mercedes and Honda. The spreadsheet doesn’t include companies that manufacture commodities — steel, aluminum, plastics – also used in other industries. Companies that make trailers, buses and golf carts were also excluded, as were foreign companies that were statistically too few to include.

Chapman, via the Freedom of Information Act, gathered 2,000 pages of investigative documents from OSHA pertaining to the companies, and he reviewed lawsuits against the employers. He traveled through Georgia and Alabama and interviewed dozens of OSHA and company officials, auto parts workers and safety experts to bring the data to life.

The methodology and findings were reviewed by four independent safety experts, who did not object to the AJC’s methodology or findings.

After only three weeks on the job, Michael Mitchell was maneuvering a 25,000-pound steel coil into position at the massive Hwashin America auto parts plant here when it got snagged on another SUV-sized steel roll. Mitchell, at the controls of an overhead crane, wiggled it free. Seconds later, it slammed into Mitchell and crushed him to death.

Three days later Brandon Ball, a welder, went into a coma after a robotic arm rammed his head and neck at the same factory, which supplies Hyundai in Montgomery and Kia in West Point, Ga.

In all, federal authorities have investigated Hwashin nine times since 2006, when Mitchell died, and has cited it for 30 safety violations. Most were deemed “serious” with a “substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result and that the employer knew, or should have known, of the hazard.”

Hwashin is one of dozens of auto parts makers — Korean, American, Japanese and German — that have repeatedly been scrutinized by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration over the last decade. Disturbed by the high number of worker injuries, agency officials recently launched a year-long review of safety practices at all auto parts factories in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution undertook its own investigation of safety problems bedeviling an industry that employs 50,000 workers in Georgia and Alabama. The Southern auto parts industry exploded in the 1990s after BMW opened a factory in Greer, S.C. Kia’s arrival in 2009 stamped Georgia on the auto industry map.

Both automakers have relatively good safety records at their own plants. Many of their suppliers, though, don’t.

The AJC’s investigation of more than 200 companies, based on OSHA records, shows that Korean parts makers, the latest foreign arrival, received the highest number of safety inspections and violations on a per capita basis.

American companies were the second worst violators. German and Japanese parts makers log markedly fewer violations.

“Even after we issued citations we’ve gone back into establishments and found many of the same or like conditions,” said Ben Ross, the assistant regional administrator for enforcement in OSHA’s Atlanta office. “Apparently the message was not received. We must continue to make sure that this particular industry in the Southeast does not turn a blind eye” to safety.

Parts makers, while acknowledging the dangers of their work, insist safety is paramount. A Hwashin spokesman said “The safety of our operation … is and always has been our number one priority.”

“I’ve never had a client that didn’t want a safe worksite,” said Ed Foulke, a lawyer with Fisher & Phillips in Atlanta who headed OSHA under George W. Bush. “Auto parts factories are most definitely safer these days. And a lot of times employers are successful because they’re doing more than just following the rules.”

Familiarity favored

German, Japanese and Korean automakers prefer doing business with suppliers from their own country. Familiarity breeds success, they say. Mercedes (German) and Honda (Japanese) have drawn dozens of same-country suppliers to Alabama and added thousands of jobs.

Kia alone attracted two dozen Korean suppliers to west Georgia that employ 10,000 workers.

The South is known for low wages and few unions, which keep production costs in check, labor strife at bay and creates a business climate attractive to manufacturers. Georgia and Alabama are also so-called right to work states which further reduces union clout.

Southern states have also doled out billions of dollars in tax breaks, incentives, free land and training – costs borne by taxpayers in the name of economic development. BMW received roughly $325 million in today’s dollars. Kia got roughly $450 million in state, local and federal incentives and tax breaks.

Gov. Nathan Deal and other officials tout the billions of dollars of investments and thousands of new jobs as worth the financial inducements. But critics say the cost to Georgia should not include endangering workers’ lives. Deal declined comment for this story.

Last fall, the AJC published an in-depth story about dangerous working conditions at Sewon America, a Korean-owned parts maker in LaGrange. The newspaper broadened its investigation to include the safety records of all auto parts suppliers in Georgia and Alabama the last decade.

OSHA records show that between May 2005, when Hyundai opened, and the end of 2013:

— Twenty percent of companies analyzed by the AJC are Korean, yet they were responsible for 38 percent of all final violations. Japanese entities own virtually the same number of factories as the Koreans, yet tallied only 15 percent of all violations. Americans, with half of the companies, registered 43 percent of the violations. The Germans, with less than 10 percent of the companies, notched only 4 percent of the violations.

— Korean companies were inspected once for every 153 workers. American companies were inspected once for every 212 workers; Germans, once for every 388 workers; and Japanese, once for every 504 workers.

— Korean companies received one final violation – an OSHA citation of wrongdoing usually accompanied by a fine — for every 41 workers. American companies got one final violation for every 53 workers; Japanese, one for every 111 workers; and Germans, one for every 143 workers.

“Some of our foreign entities need … to look at safety and health as a cost of doing business instead of just producing 100 cars a day,” said OSHA’s Ross. “What we want any employer to do, especially those where English may be a second language, is to have an understanding of our rules and regulations.”

Extensive review

The AJC reviewed two thousand pages of federal case files, lawsuits and media accounts and conducted numerous interviews, which underscored the work dangers in auto parts factories. Hwashin, for example, appeared repeatedly on OSHA’s radar after Mitchell was crushed to death by the steel coils. Although an employee told investigators that the crane’s trolley brakes had problems, OSHA eventually determined that the faulty brakes didn’t contribute to Mitchell’s death.

Joshua Simmons, Hwashin’s human resources manager, said in a statement to the AJC that Mitchell’s “death occurred because he was not following the procedures for operating a crane on which he had been trained.”

OSHA, in 2010, said Hwashin management “removed protective barriers” on stamping machines “exposing employees to amputation hazards.” A $25,000 fine was proposed for the repeat violation, but was reduced to $7,000. Hwashin admitted in 2010 that it operated stamping machines without regular safety equipment for a limited period of time.

“The safety manager at the plant … comes home crying because of the lack of safety at the facility and managements (sic) lack of concern for the welfare of its workers,” an OSHA investigator wrote in 2009.

Examples abound of dangerous working conditions. Saehaesung, a Korean chassis and body parts company in Andalusia, Ala., was initially fined $180,000 in 2011 for “willfully” endangering the safety of workers by exposing them to chemicals and other hazards. Although the fines were reduced on appeal, an OSHA official said Saehaesung’s “repeated failure to comply with OSHA standards has left employees at risk of serious injury or death.”

Many American-owned companies don’t have an enviable safety record either. Two years ago the agency cited Tenneco Automotive, an American shock absorber maker in Hartwell, Ga., for exposing workers to hexavalent chromium, which may lead to lung cancer, and other hazards.

OSHA again cited Tenneco last year for a slew of safety and health violations. In all, the company has been fined $195,000 for exposing workers to dangerous chemicals and other hazards.

In 2010, a worker at the Whitesell Corp. in Tuscumbia, Ala., which makes screws, bolts and fasteners, had his hand amputated by a machine. Appalled by working conditions at the plant, OSHA investigated a sister factory in Muscle Shoals. It found serious hazards there as well, accusing the company of willfully tampering with machine safeguards. In all, Whitesell was cited for 72 violations, the most for any company reviewed, and fined $3 million.

“OSHA will not tolerate employers who fail in their duty to keep their workers safe,” said William Fulcher, an OSHA director in Atlanta.

Industry experts cite the nation’s booming automobile industry, both domestic and foreign, to partly explain the unsafe working conditions. Automakers like General Motors and Hyundai need a ready supply of parts produced in just-in-time fashion to reduce costs. Automakers and their suppliers routinely run extra shifts and require longer hours from their workers.

OSHA investigators say Whitesell managers, for example, adjusted equipment to speed up production and therefore put workers in danger. Accelerated production was cited in other cases as well.

“Increased demand means increased hours which means increased pressure to keep equipment working when it’s got problems,” said Franklin Mirer, a safety expert at the City University of New York. “It also increases the physical stress. All of these things are related.”

“Any time any company is doing a lot of (overtime), that raises the potential for workers not being able to concentrate and make mistakes and, potentially, result in injuries,” said Foulke, the Atlanta lawyer.

OSHA has been criticized for not cracking down on repeat offenders. Ross, the OSHA enforcement official, expects the year-long investigation will put unsafe companies on notice.

“We’ve seen over the years an increase in complaints, incidents and violations, and this is one method we are using to get compliance in the industry,” he said.