October 21, 2014

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Republic fined $7,000 in worker’s rail death

Nicholas Johnson, 16, Debbie Johnson and Angela Shull lost their grandfather, husband and father in an accident at Republic Steel in February.  KRISTIN BAUER/CHRONICLE

Nicholas Johnson, 16, Debbie Johnson and Angela Shull lost their grandfather, husband and father in an accident at Republic Steel in February. KRISTIN BAUER/CHRONICLE

LORAIN — A $7,000 fine by the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration against Republic Steel for the death of Republic worker Frank Johnson Sr., is appalling, his family said Thursday.

“I’m not the vindictive type, but this is an insult,” said Johnson’s widow, Debbie Johnson. “It’s kind of like a slap in the face.”

Johnson, 62, was crushed between two railroad cars Feb. 14 at the plant at 1807 E. 28th St. Johnson was riding on an end car hauling scrap that struck a derailed car, according to police Detective Buddy Sivert’s report.

Kymberly Nelson, OSHA Toledo office area director, said Republic was notified of the fine Thursday. Nelson said she wouldn’t provide a report on the investigation because the case is still open.

Republic has 15 working days to contest the fine or the case closes. Republic officials did not respond to calls and emails Thursday.

Tom McDermott, president of United Steel Workers Local 1104, Johnson’s union, didn’t return calls.

Nelson said Republic received a generic fine because OSHA doesn’t have a specific standard for railroad tracks on private property. Nelson said OSHA’s three-month investigation found the railroad wasn’t free of ice, which caused the derailment.

“We found enough evidence to support that they had some basic knowledge of the hazard, which resulted in the fatality,” she said.

Debbie Johnson comments about what life has been like without her husband, Frank.

Debbie Johnson comments about what life has been like without her husband, Frank.

The fine comes about three weeks after OSHA and Republic reached an unrelated $2.4 million settlement over violations at the Lorain plant and Republic’s other steel mills in Canton, Massillon and Blasdell, N.Y.

An initial fine of $5.5 million included about $1 million at the Lorain mill. Since 1990, the Lorain plant has been inspected 30 times resulting in 57 serious violations, 10 willful violations and 10 repeat violations, according to OSHA.

Nelson said OSHA, which has about 20 inspectors covering 28 counties in northern Ohio, considered Republic’s safety record in assessing the $7,000 fine. The company has about $1.3 billion in annual revenue. Nelson said she’s aware that some people may believe the fine is too low because it involved a death and because of Republic’s history of violations.

However, Nelson said fines are based on the “violation of a standard” and not on the value of workers’ lives.

“The loss of a life, no matter how much you fine, is never going to be enough,” Nelson said.

Nelson said no “intentional disregard” or “plain indifference” was found by Republic, which could’ve resulted in a maximum $70,000 fine. Nonetheless, Johnson said her husband, who began working at the plant in 1969, had been complaining for at least six years that a part to de-ice the tracks was malfunctioning.

Johnson wasn’t alone, according to Sivert’s report. Reed Deberry, a 44-year employee and train engineer for 20 years, said the tracks were in poor condition and there was a buildup of snow and ice.

“Reed explained that they have complained about the track conditions, but nothing was ever done,” Sivert wrote. “Reed stated that because the derailed car was on a curve, they would not have noticed the car sticking out until it was too late.”

Debbie Johnson said the report proves Republic was negligent.

“How isn’t that … intentional?” she asked. “That’s not an accident when you know it can be fixed and you don’t do it.”

Johnson’s son, Frank Johnson Jr., is a Republic employee who worked with his father on the railroad until transferring after the crash. Johnson, who said the area where the crash occurred has been blocked off, said the fine is senseless.

“I’m pretty amazed,” Johnson Jr. said. “There were bigger fines on things where people didn’t even get hurt.”

Angela Schull comments on the death of her father Frank Johnson, who was killed Feb. 14 in an accident at Republic Steel.

Angela Shull comments on the death of her father Frank Johnson, who was killed Feb. 14 in an accident at Republic Steel.

Frank Johnson Sr. began working at the plant in 1969 and Debbie Johnson said he was a dedicated worker who only missed about a week of work in 45 years. Johnson was a father of two and had two grandchildren.

Debbie Johnson, 59, who opened a cake and cookie making business out of their Brownhelm Township home in 2008, said her husband didn’t make great money despite working long hours.

She said her husband had considered retiring in October, but wanted to stay until turning 63 to increase his Social Security payments.

Besides financial strains, the death has caused emotional trauma. Angela Shull, Johnson’s daughter, said it’s been difficult dealing with her father’s death.

“It’s almost like he died for no reason,” Shull said as she choked back tears. “They’re not going to change anything. They’re not going to make anything better.”

Debbie Johnson said friends urged her to sue Republic over her husband’s death, but she wasn’t considering it until after hearing about the OSHA fine. Johnson said she worries the size of the fine won’t give Republic incentive to improve safety.

Johnson said Republic workers are reluctant to complain about safety fearing they’ll be fired for speaking out.

“Somebody else is going to get killed out there,” she said.

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

 


  • Roberta

    Frank Johnson is my baby brother !!! How dare they !!!! This is so wrong !!! None of us (his family) and friends can not handle his death ! So senseless, just because things were not fixed !!! How long do those men there have to ask for things to be fixed. Let it be one of their family members and see if it would make a difference. As Debbie said, “Just another slap in the face!! “

    • luvmytoaster

      I am so very sorry for your loss – how senseless.

  • Phil Blank

    I don’t see how ice on the track can derail a train. The wheel flanges keep the wheels on the track from moving sideways, to a point. The weight of the car usually crushes any ice on the track. The ice would need to be pretty big to lift a heavy rail car up off the track and derail it. I wasn’t there, didn’t see it or the track and derailed car, so I can’t say for sure what happened.

    I’ve not worked in a rail yard since the 70s, but the cars and tracks haven’t changed that much, if it all.

    Sorry for the families loss.

    • WeDumB

      U used to work on the track at the mill. “humping” of cars was always the biggest safety concern and being between them was one of the first things I was taught not to be at when I started. Derails happen constantly, mostly caused by broken/cracked switch points. We spent all day every day welding and grinding them, but derails would still happen.