Investigator | Calls for reforms following workplace fatalities and injuries
Every week in Ohio, an employee dies in a work-related accident. Every year, hundreds more workers are injured on the job.
While the casualties mount, a number of personal injury lawyers say Ohio law does more to protect companies than it does to help injured workers or the families of workers who have been killed.
"Money rules the world. And money is on the side of the company. Money is on the side of the insurance industry and money is on the side of lobbyists," says Christian R. Patno, an attorney with the McCarthy, Lebit, Crystal and Liffman law firm in Cleveland.
In June, Patno filed a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of the family of Kevin Brandt against Steel Warehouse LLC. The lawsuit alleges that a 30-ton steel coil - suspended in the air by a crane – crushed the worker inside the company’s Cleveland facility.
Patno says in his lawsuit that the crane was defective and dangerous.
Without warning, the crane allegedly failed, causing the massive coil to crush Brandt against an aisle of other stacked coils. Patno alleges the company has tried to downplay the facts.
"The company told them it was essentially due to his diet, that he had eaten hot dogs, drank energy drinks and had a heart attack," Patno said.
A Steel Warehouse spokesperson released a statement Monday afternoon calling Brandt’s death “a tragedy.” He said the company has a nearly unblemished safety record. The only injury reported was by a worker who slipped in the company parking lot.
“In diligently investigating the causes and circumstances surrounding Kevin’s death, neither the company’s safety consultant, an independent third party…nor did the staff of OSHA sustain, [find] any safety violation…or any other act or omission that may have cause of contributed to Kevin’s death,” the statement read.
OSHA - the Occupational Health and Safety Administration - investigates injuries, deaths and complaints of unsafe workplaces. Every year, OSHA cites hundreds of businesses and issues tens of thousands of dollars in fines.
After Brandt’s death in 2015, OSHA investigated the facility on Heidtman Parkway. OSHA issued three citations – for exit route design, handling of materials and blood-borne pathogens. The company says the citations are unrelated to Brandt’s death.
OSHA said it could not release records associated with the case until the investigation is fully closed. Steel Warehouse is contesting the violations and $14,700 in fines.
A Channel 3 News review of OSHA records shows Republic Steel leads local businesses in violations filed by the federal agency’s Cleveland office. Republic, a manufacturing company based in Canton has been assessed $5.8 million in fines for 132 violations, according to OSHA records.
TimkenSteel has been fined $791,031 for 52 violations.
Other companies with multiple violations since 2011 include Case Farms of Canton, 32 violations; Ball Aerosol of Hubbard and Vallourec of Youngstown, each with 30 violations.
Norton Industries in Cleveland, 26 violations; Wodin Inc. of Bedford Heights, 24 violations.
Vista Windows of Warren, and MCM Industries in Cleveland, 23 violations; Eagle Welding of Willoughby, 21 violations; and Cleveland Screw of Cleveland, 20 violations.
While work place injuries are far more common, it is deaths that garner the most attention. In Ohio, 46 workers died in the most recent fiscal year. That’s more than Illinois (44) and triple the 15 workers killed in Wisconsin.
In a second wrongful death case, Patno is suing the city of Willoughby following the 2012 death of service department worker Shawn Wilson. The 50-year-old worker was operating a pavement roller when suddenly it went out of control, killing Wilson.
Patno says the city's modification of the parking brake disabled it and the city failed to take corrective action.
"The accident should not have happened. It could have been prevented," said Sharon Seaton, Wilson’s sister. "Something happened through no fault of his own. Someone got lazy and something happened they shouldn't have done and Shawn died."
Willoughby Law Director John W. Wiles declined comment on the lawsuit. The case is pending in Summit County Common Pleas Court.
Attorney Robert F. DiCello said he is appalled at the lack of safety and training at a number of manufacturers in Northeast Ohio.
"We have places here that workers are not getting all the information they need to be safe," said DiCello.
He has sued Flow Polymers of Cleveland and a supplier for injuries that Barry Jones suffered while working.
Jones says he was instructed to transfer a black powder into heated rail cars. During the transfer, Jones says there was an explosion and fire. The young Cleveland man suffered third-degree burns over 75 percent of his body.
He is permanently disfigured and must apply lotion to his scarred body every day.
"It was just hard to look at myself in the mirror at first," Jones said. "I wouldn't even go outside honestly."
DiCello says Flow Polymers, located on Coit Road, told Jones there was nothing to worry about when he was handling the black powder and that no special clothing or safety guards were needed.
Jones says he did nothing wrong and was just carrying out orders.
DiCello says the company knew the material was hazardous, but never told Jones. The company has not commented. They have denied any wrongdoing, according to court documents.
"It was actually known to be hazardous when they called it safe," DiCello said. "They told him it was like baby powder. They said you might get dirty and that's it."