December 19, 2014

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Republic worker killed in accident had expressed safety concerns

Frank Johnson Sr.

Frank Johnson Sr.

LORAIN — Work at a steel plant is dangerous and Frank Johnson Sr. had a few close calls during his 45 years at Republic Steel.

One day after work in the 1980s, Johnson returned home from work with a mark on his forehead after it was grazed by a wrecking ball, according to Debbie Johnson, his wife. But in the four to five months leading up to his being crushed to death at the plant Friday, Johnson had become increasingly concerned about safety.

“He said, ‘Debbie, I’m telling you, somebody is going to get killed out there, and I hope it ain’t me,’” Debbie Johnson said Sunday.

Johnson, a brakeman on a train hauling scrap, was riding on the side of a train car when he was crushed between the car and parked train cars, according to Tom McDermott, United Steelworkers Local 1104 president pro tem. The death is under investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Toledo office.

Paula K. Dudukovich, Republic director of human resources, wouldn’t answer safety questions Sunday.

“Our focus is the family of our colleague, and on working with all the appropriate authorities to learn how this tragic incident occurred,” Dudukovich wrote in an email. “We will be releasing more information as soon as we have an update.”

Republic is familiar to OSHA. The company was fined $235,000 in 2012 by OSHA for violations at the plant, including failure to protect workers from fall hazards and unsafe procedures involving hazardous equipment. In 2011, Republic was placed in the agency’s Severe Violators Enforcement Program due to a series of worker injuries and fatalities.

“There is no excuse for Republic Engineered Products to continue to neglect its workers safety,” Dr. David Michaels, an OSHA assistant secretary of labor, said in 2011 after the agency proposed a $563,000 fine. “It needs to make a serious effort to comply with common-sense regulations to protect its employees.”

Safety problems continued in the months before Johnson’s death. On Sept. 12, John Evanish, a 41-year-old worker, miraculously survived a 47-foot fall through a roof.

Evanish broke four bones in his back, seven ribs and suffered four compound fractures in his left arm. Evanish said doctors told him 95 percent of people who fall 25 feet or more die or are paralyzed.

“Everyone’s amazed that I’m alive,” Evanish said.

On Nov. 30, Republic suffered a fire that firefighters said caused millions in damage to the plant, which is completing an $85 million plant upgrade involving installation of an electric arc furnace. The upgrade is slated to create 450 new jobs and Republic officials said in January that the furnace is close to being fully operational. Republic’s website said it makes $1 billion in annual sales.

Johnson, 62, began work at the plant at 1827 E. 28th St., in 1969 as a bricklayer. He was laid off in 2008 after Republic’s blast furnace was shuttered in the economic crash.

Johnson returned to work in 2009 as a brakeman. He worked with his son, Frank Johnson Jr., a train operator who was hired in 2000. The younger Johnson was working in the scrap yard substituting for a vacationing worker when the crash occurred.

Johnson said his father was concerned about ice and snow on the tracks and a lack of maintenance on aging train cars.

“The trains need tons of work,” he said. “They’re ancient.”

Councilman Rick Lucente, D-6th Ward, is a maintenance and hydraulic repairman at the plant who was hired in 1973 and knew the elder Johnson. Lucente, Local 1104 pension chairman, said the elder Johnson had complained to him about newly hired workers lacking training that was increasing the potential for accidents.

Debbie Johnson and Frank Johnson Jr., said Republic officials haven’t discussed details of the accident with them. They remembered Johnson, a Brownhelm Township resident and father of two, as a hardworking man who only missed five days of work in his 45 years at the plant. He restored classic cars with his sons and grandson in his spare time.

Frank Johnson said his father instilled in him early in his life the need to work hard and be a good family provider.

“He was my hero,” Johnson said as he choked back tears.

Contact Evan Goodenow at 329-7129 or egoodenow@chroniclet.com.