4,547 – The number of workplace fatalities in 2010.
$3,959,000,000.00 - Norampac, Inc. “Cascade’s” 2010 Revenue.
$3,918,700 – Cascades CEO, Marc-Andre Depin’s compensation for all sources, 2010.
$70,000 – The current maximum OSHA penalty for a serious, “willful” violation. (The amount Norampac was fined for Peter Q. Neville’s death.)
Four – Norampac, Inc.’s short term objective, 2009, “to lower our cases of inaptitude at work (OSHA rate) to four within 3-5 years.”
One – The times the monetary penalties for violations of the Occupational Safety and Health Act have increased, despite inflation, since 1970.
Two – The number of young men who have died at the Niagara Falls Norampac plant. The number of years it has been since Peter’s death.
Peter Q. Neville, one of 4,547 to die at work during 2010. To many, that number is just a statistic. To us, that number included my husband, who was a father, a son, a son-in-law, a brother-in-law, an uncle, a neighbor, and a best friend.
That’s the thing about statistics…they are often cited to compound the tragedy. They group together all the horrible awfulness in order to reduce it to a countable number. In changing a glorious life to a statistic, they take away the catastrophic significance of the single most awful thing you could ever imagine happening to you. We are forever changed by the loss of Peter. It is the single most defining moment in my life. But to those who read the statistic, he’s just one of the many employees who died in the workplace in 2010.
I understand. I’ve read these statistics myself and felt the disconnect. “That would never happen to us.” Well, it did happen to us and the loss continues to impact us, in different ways, each and every day.
The doorbell rang just before seven that morning. I remember waking sometime after six and thinking, “Yay! Peter will be home soon.” My bedroom was almost at full capacity; my then six year old awoke sometime in the early morning hours and joined me, something he hadn’t done for years. My ten month old slept in the crib next to the bed. It was a long night and soon my partner, the relief to this busy mom, would be home. On this night, my life, my kids lives, would be forever changed – I did not yet know that from now on, everything would be different.
Tired, I dozed back and was awaken by the doorbell. I jumped out of bed and ran to the window because after all, I was alone with three kids all night and it’s not an ordinary thing to have someone at my door at this hour. A police car. My heart sank. I’ve never had a police car at my home for any reason.
I think I knew at that point. I worried when my husband worked all night and in such hard working conditions. My mom, who had just died of cancer nine months before, said more than once that she worried about him working there. She always had that type of insight. But, Peter had a family and in Western New York, it wasn’t easy to find a good paying job. And he found himself out of work when I was pregnant with our third child. He had a family and they came first so he had to find work anywhere he could find it.
As I ran to the door, I rationalized some other possible explanations. I opened the door and the police officer asked if I was Mara Neville and handed me a piece of paper. He said that I was to call Joe at Norampac. I asked, “Is something wrong?” He replied, “I don’t know, ma’am, I am just here to give you the message.”
I went into my son’s room since the two little ones were occupying mine. My oldest, Rose, was still sound asleep in her own room. I called the number…Joe, Norampac’s human resource manager answered. “Mara there’s been a terrible accident. Peter was killed last night on the job.” What do you say to that? Honestly, I don’t remember. I think I asked some questions to which he had no answers.
On May 12, 2010, Peter was on a twelve hour shift from 7 in the evening till 7 in the morning – that is until 4:28 a.m. when his shift was cut short; crushed to death by a 3 ton roll of paper – At this point, I did not know these details, just that I lost my husband, the father of my three children.
My first thought was to call my father, my amazingly strong father, who had just lost the love of his life, and who kept it together for all of us in a time of such grief just months ago. He could hardly understand me on the phone. I was hysterical, but finally I got my message across to him and that put him in charge of leading the family to action.
What now? Rose, Peter and Emma! I wanted to just get it over with, like ripping off a Band-Aid. I went into Rose’s room first. She just turned twelve and was in the sixth grade. I woke her and blurted it out, in hysteria. She began to cry and look for an explanation. On to Peter, who had just turned six. He was in my room. Something made him seek refuge in mom’s bed earlier….did he have a nightmare? Was he warned? I did it the same way, his little face, confused and in disbelief and then I sank to the floor and wept. Emma, my newborn, will never know her father.
The early hours from this point are fuzzy. My family arrived and they quickly went to work, having to set aside their own emotions to be there for us. First, consoling and comforting and then, tasks began to be divided. First, we needed answers. My brother called Norampac, Inc. to find out what happened to Peter. He was simply told to go to the police department and ask for the police report. Damage control. Gag order. I am going to need a lawyer.
A visit to the police department gave a short description of the accident and a sketchy restating of the obvious facts. These facts were repeated on the local evening news and in the next day’s paper. Again, a glorious life reduced to a few sentences. “Peter Q. Neville, 40, was crushed to death at Normapac industries while working on a line that handles several thousand pound paper rolls. (Neville) was pinned between metal and a 3-ton roll of paper. Video surveillance of the incident shows Neville capping the end of a roll of paper before being struck and getting pinned against a metal wall.” The article ended with a sentence which was animmediate cause for concern. “Police noted that the area is marked with a sign that says it’s off limits when the machines are running.” That’s just not Peter – Peter was just doing what he was taught to do. Is this an attempt to divert the blame?
As the hours went by quickly, news traveled. People who cared began to arrive, or just stop by to try to do something. I was overwhelmed with visitors, calls and tasks. My family took care of my children. The coroner. The funeral home. The church. A call from the CEO, of Norampac/Cascades from Quebec, Marc-Andre Depin, to offer condolences, the one and only time I ever heard from him.
Unbeknownst to me, on May 13, 2010 at 1 p.m., Norampac held its regularly scheduled quarterly shareholders conference call. Business as usual. Transcripts of this conference call detail the prepared speeches about corporate profitability, summary of the past quarterly earnings, and corporate strategy for future profitability. Not a word or hint about Peter’s workplace death. Even the local Norampac President, who spoke with me the previous morning, didn’t mention Peter’s death during this shareholders’ call. Why not? Wouldn’t such a workplace death would be of concern to the shareholders? If one were to read the Norampac 2010 annual report, they would see the message from the President – a stand-alone paragraph on a page to itself…“From a human resources standpoint, we continued to focus on our employees’ health and safety, consequently although even our most minor accident still represents a failure in our processes, our number of cases of inaptitude at work (OSHA rate) was down 12% over the previous year.”
In the coming months, OSHA’s investigation would reveal a different focus.
At the same time as the shareholder conference call, funeral arrangements were underway…
I never expected at age 39, just ten months after completing our family, I would be picking out a casket for Peter. I chose navy blue because he was so patriotic. Red, white and blue flowers would adorn it. I laid out navy blue pants, a navy and red plaid shirt and navy vest. He wore that to Emma’s christening just five months ago.
One hour at a time. One day at a time. One week at a time. One month at a time. Life stood still.
I decided early on that I would not let this horrible tragedy ruin us. I would be strong. I would go on, for Peter, for our children. In those first weeks, I made a small goal each day, a short chore, something I could achieve. I began to plan short outings with my children, a walk or a trip to the store. I began my quest for answers. I was never given an explanation for Peter’s death.
“Under the New York Workers’ Compensation Law, workers’ compensation is, with certain exceptions, the exclusive remedy against the employer for damages sustained from injury or death that arose out of and in the course of the employment.” Most people except trained injury attorneys do not realize that an employer cannot be sued, even if their gross negligence causes an employee’s death. The exclusive remedy is workers’ compensation, that is, the employer purchases workers’ compensation insurance and when an injury, or fatality, occurs, the claimant is limited to statutory damages under the New York Worker’s Compensation Law which is paid by the insurance company. In other words, these damage limitations do not consider the level of negligence, gross negligence, or complete disregard for the law by the employer. The injured or killed employee or survivors cannot sue for pain and suffering or any other damages. They cannot even negotiate the level of damages with the employers’ workers compensation insurance company as again the amounts are limited by statutory law.
With that stated, getting an attorney to find the answers to the questions sought would be difficult. In order to access certain information, an attorney must have a cause for action. Moreover, an attorney must wait until OSHA concluded its own investigation. Government. Red Tape. Would I ever have the answers I seek?
I feel lucky to have met my attorney. He was referred by a family friend and we met in person on the day Peter died. He arrived at my house sometime that afternoon and from that point, he relieved me of all the legal concerns. He took care of estate paperwork, not in his job description, and certainly not in my young mind. He referred me to a workers’ compensation attorney and introduced me for the first time to our workers’ compensation laws, which protected Norampac, Inc. a Canadian based company operating in the United States. Still, he didn’t close his door to me. He would work with me for the next two years, trying to provide me with what I needed most of all, an explanation.
While my attorney worked within the confines of OSHA and the legal system to do his investigation, I began fact finding on my own. A card that arrived in the mail shortly after Peter’s death made me realize that I was not alone. Another young man, Vito Sorrento, died at that Niagara Falls plant not so long ago. His mom, still aching her young son’s death, was devastated to read about Peter in the paper. She never imagined it could happen again. I wondered. How many times had it happened? Just with a few Internet searches, I realized that Norampac / Cascade has a long history of OHSA violations and penalties. In 2005, Gordon Cecil was killed working in their Boise Umatilla facility. In a press release by OHSA, it was revealed that OHSA found safety protocols designed to protect workers from serious injury had been bypassed with the knowledge of supervisors at the Umatilla facility. The document described how workers had been instructed to use a safety bypass switch on the machine to reduce production downtime. Plant management had encouraged workers to bypass the manufacturer-installed safety system in order to prevent delay in production.
Living in the small community of Niagara Falls, people also began to talk. Some had a distant association with Norampac, others knew someone who knew someone. A few brave Norampac employees, unafraid of the repercussions of talking to me, came forward over the coming months.
Pieces of the puzzle were starting to emerge and I began to fit them piece by piece, twisting and turning them to fit, a desperate attempt at finishing the picture. I was hoping to find an explanation, not a reason. There could be no reason for this to happen.
Peter was on a split shift that week, for the first time in his few months employed at Norampac. It was reputed to be the most difficult shift. Employees worked days at the beginning of the week and nights later in the week.
I was told that Peter, who was still being trained in various aspects of the manufacturing process, was a last minute replacement that evening for someone who called in sick. He was not fully trained in the area to which he was reassigned, “winder helper”.
In so far as “police noted that the area is marked with a sign that says it’s off limits when the machines are running,” some employees said that no such area existed. Others said it did, but it was “normal” protocol to go there.
After Peter’s death a number of employees came forward to tell me that they felt Norampac’s management intimidated employees, who feared losing their job, and frequently urged them to work faster.
The most telling piece of the puzzle came from a Norampac employee who once served on the company’s safety committee. He stated that Norampac erected a metal frame to prevent rolls of a large size from passing through. Customers would not accept rolls that were too large. Therefore, Norampac modified the equipment to prevent larger rolls of paper moving through the line, presumably to increase customer satisfaction, and therefore, profitability. Previously, a safety sensor stopped the conveyor if the paper roll was too big. All the work for these modifications was done, in house, by Norampac. I would later find out this protected Norampac from third party involvement. If a third party was sued, they would in turn sue Norampac.
The employee warned the manager who made the decision, “Someone is going to die there.” Peter was that someone, as the OSHA investigation would later show that Peter died because he was caught between this metal structure and a paper roll.
The manager, whose decision cost Peter’s life, left Norampac soon after Peter’s death. He moved out of state. I am unaware whether or not he left on his own accord.
The metal structure was removed the day of Peter’s death, prior to the arrival of OSHA.
OSHA conducted their investigation, interviewing employees on the premises of the Norampac plant. At least one employee who worked with Peter that evening, was out on disability and was never questioned by OSHA. In October, their findings were revealed.
OSHA officials determined that Neville, a father of three who lived in the Falls, was crushed when he became caught between a fixed metal barrier and a large paper roll that was moving on a conveyor. Investigators from the agency’s Buffalo office found that the company failed to provide adequate employee safeguards in the area where the incident occurred.
“Our inspection found that the area where the moving paper roll and the barrier intersected lacked guarding to prevent employees from being caught between the two objects,” said Arthur Dube, OSHA’s area director in Buffalo.
Following the inspection, OSHA issued two repeat citations and two serious citations to Norampac, carrying $75,000 in fines. $75,000 and a brief explanation, the penalty for taking away the life of a young father of three.
My attorney’s work continued and our correspondence was steadfast over the next two years. However, I did not see him again in person until just a couple months before the two year anniversary. We met so that he could present the findings of the investigation. During this meeting, much of what I already knew from my own fact finding was confirmed. Peter forgot to cap the end of a paper roll. Was it the grueling shift? Was it a lack of training in an unfamiliar area? He walked onto a slow-moving conveyer through the metal structure to add the cap. Where did he learn how to do this? He was not a trained machinist, he studied history in college! He was the winder helper that night? Where were his coworkers? How afraid of management was he to make a mistake? A safety sensor in the area was not operating that evening. It was originally installed, in house, by Norampac staff. He became caught between the metal structure, also installed in house by Norampac, and the paper roll and he was crushed to death. Research into Norampac/Cascade’s safety history also revealed a long list of violations.
My attorney showed me a video of Peter as he calmly approached the last minutes of his life. What was he thinking? Was he lost in thought of getting home to his family in just two hours?
There is a bill in committee in the United States House of Representatives, H.R. 190, along with a similar bill by the Senate, which would amend the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 to expand coverage under the act, to increase protections for whistleblowers and to increase penalties for certain violators, including imprisonment for employers who knowingly violate. It has been supported by our local representative, Louise Slaughter.
Below is an excerpt from a speech given by David Michaels, the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health commemorating Workers’ Memorial Day, April 28, 2010, exactly two weeks before Peter died.
“In 2001 at a Delaware oil refinery, a tank of sulfuric acid exploded, killing a worker named Jeff Davis. His body literally dissolved in the acid. The OSHA penalty was only $175,000. Yet, in the same incident, thousands of dead fish and crabs were discovered, allowing an EPA Clean Water Act citation of $10 million. How can we tell Jeff Davis’ wife and his five children that the penalty for killing fish and crabs is 50 times higher than the penalty for killing their husband and father?
It’s an unfortunate fact that sometimes monetary penalties are just not enough. Nothing focuses the mind like the prospect of time in prison.
The plain fact is, to outlaw criminal behavior, we need criminal penalties. Right now, under the OSH Act, the maximum criminal penalty for killing a worker as a result of a willful citation is only a misdemeanor.
The Protecting America’s Workers Act, now under consideration in Congress, would
- raise the ceiling on OSHA fines
- increase criminal penalties and criminal liability for employers who knowingly endanger workers
- expand the rights of workers’ and victims’ families
- strengthen whistleblower protections.
H.R. 190 currently has a two percent chance of becoming law. It’s counterpart in the Senate, S 1166, has yet to make it to committee but has a 27% chance of becoming law. More statistics.
Peter Q. Neville was not just a statistic to us. He was a loving husband and father whose loss will be mourned forever. We feel the void of not having him with us each and every day. As his children grow, their void will not go away, only change. While they once longed for the warmth of his chest at naptime or his playful laugh as they raced him up the stairs, they will someday yearn for his fatherly advice or his approving arm guiding them down the wedding aisle.
To Norampac, Peter was one of the four “allowable inaptitude at work incidents” (OSHA rate) within the years 2009-2012, as stated as their workplace safety goal in 2009. To us, he was just the one.
The one father Rose shared an easy going personality and love of history with.
The one father Peter shared a name and a never ending smile with.
The one father Emma resembles so strongly but will never know.
My one and only first love. The one and only man I promised to love and cherish til death do us part.
[By Mara Neville]
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