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A Company Town Begins to Fear Its Company

December 12, 1995

Middletown, Ohio, owes its life to AK Steel, which has fired the local economy since 1900 and to this day provides jobs for thousands.

But along with the gratitude felt by many Middletowners, another feeling is growing in intensity: fear. This month, three explosions rocked the mill, injuring 14 workers. Since October 1993, eight men have died in accidents at the mill.

Every steel mill _ and many other kinds of factories _ has its dangers, accidents and deaths, but AK Steel’s recent record sets it apart. National Steel Corp., which has roughly twice as many employees as AK Steel’s Middletown plant, has had two fatalities at three facilities in the same two-year period. Bethlehem Steel Corp. has had 11 deaths, but at 10 facilities employing a total of about 19,000 people. The AK Steel mill in Middletown has about 3,300 workers.

``We have to acknowledge that there is a phenomenon here that is hard to explain,″ says Alan McCoy, AK Steel Holding Corp.’s spokesman. ``Having said that, it’s our ongoing job to explain it and get to the root cause. It’s a deep, deep concern, make no mistake about it.″

The concern is evident among Middletown residents. One generation has followed another into the grimy mill; AK Steel, still known to most by its former name, Armco, contributes 30 percent to 40 percent of the local income-tax base. ``Without Armco, there wouldn’t be a town,″ says Mary Miller, executive secretary at the Fraternal Order of Eagles, No. 528, in Middletown.

It is a like-it-or-not dependence that can be seen in hundreds of small cities and towns throughout the country, and a closer look at Middletown life these days indicates what can happen when things go awry at an area’s No. 1 workplace.

Jim Fetters, a crane operator with 20 years at the mill, sums up the predicament facing many workers. ``I hate the thought of coming here,″ he says of the mill. ``But it’s a good paying job with good benefits. I’ve got mouths to feed.″

Robert Meyers, who retired from the mill in 1984 after 38 years, sits in a barber’s chair downtown and expounds on the topic of the day. In all his years at the mill, he says, the number of fatalities wasn’t ``anything like they’ve had now.″ He adds: ``There’s something going on there that didn’t go on for years.″

Neither the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration nor the mill itself has fatality figures going back as far as Mr. Meyers’s recollections. But OSHA has been investigating the recent accidents at the mill and says AK Steel violated safety regulations in at least two of the fatal accidents, one of which killed four men. AK Steel also was cited by OSHA for failing to coordinate hazardous activities with outside contractors hired to work at the mill; six of the workers who have died were contract employees.

Some employees say the company goes to great lengths to provide a safe workplace. ``Safety is a daily ritual,″ says Chuck Purvis, who works on a steel-coating operation. Just last month, AK Steel started an eight-hour safety-training course for all employees in addition to its normal training program.

But the new program hasn’t allayed worker anxiety. Earl Wilhoit III works near the basic oxygen furnace where molten iron is made into steel. ``I say a little prayer every time I come in the gates that I go home with all my body parts,″ he says. Yet leaving seems impossible. ``I got 19 years in here,″ he says. ``How could I quit? You’d start from scratch somewhere else.″

A drive around the area takes a visitor by new shopping centers, department stores and restaurants. ``That’s because of AK,″ says Randy Rich, who owns a downtown pawnshop. This year, when workers received their first profit-sharing checks ever, boat dealers, car lots and furniture stores all benefited.

AK Steel, which has its only other plant in Ashland, Ky., is the nation’s seventh-largest steelmaker and its most profitable on a per-ton basis. Much of the credit for the current prosperity goes to a management team led by industry veteran Thomas C. Graham that took over in 1992 and has succeeded by slashing costs and boosting productivity.

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