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Friday, July 11, 2003

Accident kills AK Steel worker

By Janice Morse
The Cincinnati Enquirer

MIDDLETOWN - An employee at AK Steel Corp. was killed Thursday when a part from an overhead crane toppled onto him, causing the plant's first fatal industrial accident in seven years.

A number of co-workers, including a lifelong friend, witnessed the accident that killed Ralph E. Jones, 41, of Waynesville.

"It was instant; he didn't feel any pain," his son, James, 24, said.

Ed Shelley, president of the plant's 3,000-member union, agreed that a long time had passed since the last fatality, "but not long enough."

Outside the plant's union hall, a plaque reads:

In memory of those who have lost their lives at Middletown Works.

It was formerly known as the nation's most dangerous steel plant. Between 1972 and 1996, 15 workers died there, resulting in hefty government fines. Since then, the 2,791-acre complex turned around its record and has won many national safety awards.

"They've worked very hard on safety," said Richard Gilgrist, Cincinnati area director for the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency charged with overseeing workplace conditions.

That agency is still investigating one other 2003 death arising from the Middletown Works, Gilgrist said. An employee of Johnson Controls, Sheila Walker, 47, of Middletown, fell down some steps at the plant Feb. 4 and fractured her ankle. She died 13 days later from blood clots in both lungs, according to the Butler County Coroner's Office.

Gilgrist said his office had not yet determined whether any unsafe conditions contributed to Walker's fall.

Gilgrist's office, AK Steel, the workers union, Middletown police and the county coroner's office are investigating Jones' death.

"There's nothing suspicious," said Middletown Police Lt. Don Owens. "It appears it was an unfortunate industrial accident, caused by a mechanical failure."

The accident occurred in the annealing department, where steel is slowly heated and cooled to prevent brittleness.

Crews arrived in six minutes, Sauter said, and transported Jones to Middletown Regional Hospital. He was pronounced dead around 9:20 a.m., the county coroner's office said. An autopsy is set for Saturday.

Jones was on a forklift, preparing to do maintenance work on the crane, when its "lifting block" device fell onto the forklift's safety cage, said AK spokesman Alan McCoy. Middletown police said witnesses estimated the part weighed 3,400 pounds.

"You can imagine what something like that would do," said Shelley, president of the Armco Employees Independent Federation. "Our hearts go out to his family and his friends and to the workers who were on the job and saw this happen. It had to be a devastating experience for all of them."

Many AK employees know Jones or his family because he worked there 17 years and because his father, Ralph Jones Sr. of Franklin, is an AK retiree, Shelley said.

The company offered counselors to Jones' family and co-workers, McCoy said.

Richard M. Wardrop Jr., chairman and chief executive of AK Steel, issued a written statement:

"The deepest sympathy, thoughts and prayers of AK Steel employees everywhere are with Eric and his family and friends. We cannot adequately express the sorrow we all feel."

The company employs more than 10,000 people in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Kentucky and other locations.


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Jul. 11, 2003
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