Certified safety instructor Ed Fitzgerald displays a hook and various types of safety harnesses to Passport Safety Program class attendees.
Fingers crushed or lost to the merciless blades of a shearing machine, sliced flesh from the razor-like edge of a sheet of metal, scorched retinas from welding flashes and shattered necks and backs due to falling from dizzying heights. These are the hazards to which sheet metal workers are vulnerable every day in their line of work.

And nearly every one of them can tell a grisly story of an accident they've seen, heard about or been the victim of while working with the dangerous materials of their trade.

During his apprenticeship training to become a journeyman sheet metal worker 20 years ago, Jim Lewis considered the inherent risks of the vocation he was about to enter.

"I remember asking myself 'How in the world am I going to keep from getting cut on all that metal?'" Through the years, Lewis, who oversees production in the ductwork fabricating shop at Aerotech Mechanical Contractors in Boardman, Ohio, has witnessed the outcome of sharp metal meeting human flesh. He's also seen major changes in the way contractors approach the issue of safety protection for their workers. The Passport Safety Training Program, sponsored by a consortium comprised of Eastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania Local #33 Sheet Metal Workers Union, Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning National Contractors Association (SMACNA) and OSHA, is one such move aimed at decreasing accidental injuries among the workers these groups represent.

Through the seven-session program, which ran weekly through March, participants learned safer working methods specific to situations they encounter every day in their work. Fall protection while working with ladders and scaffolding, the handling of toxic substances and fire prevention are among the topics covered in the course. Enrollees pay nothing to attend the classes; the local contractor members of SMACNA assume the cost of the program.

During the first class session, Ed Fitzgerald, a certified safety instructor with MTech, demonstrated an array of new safety equipment specifically suited to the situations sheet metal workers encounter on the jobsite. "It's important that the contractors understand that these classes are investment - creating safer workers means they'll get their workers back tomorrow," he said.

"There's no doubt about it, this is dangerous work," says one shop foreman.

Safety certification

The Passport Program is aptly named, said Kevin Reilly, chapter executive for SMACNA, because once participants complete the course, they receive a certification card from OSHA that adds to their credentials and allows them to move more easily through the industry. "This card is very much like a travel passport, only it identifies bearers as journeymen and women who have been trained to work safer and smarter," he said. "And that's becoming more and more important to the contractors who hire them."

Mike Fagert, president of York-Mahoning, Inc. of Youngstown, Ohio, believes the consistency the training program offers is especially important. Prior to the development of the Passport Program three years ago, some workers may have had safety training while others hadn't and no standard existed in the industry. "We've needed a common training program like this for a long time," said Fagert. "Ultimately, we'd like to see every union sheet metal worker go through the program," he said.

Recently, some of the jobs for which contractors are submitting bids require safety-trained workers because it keeps liability insurance costs lower. Sam Samuels, of A.A. Samuels Sheet Metal in Austintown, Oh., predicts this may be a sign of things to come for the industry. "I see it as a coming trend - a positive one," he said. Samuels, who's been working since he was 12 years old at the family business his grandfather established 70 years ago, strongly encourages his workers to go through the Passport Program. "It's certainly a plus for them. They take that training with them no matter where they go to work," he said.

According to a current Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics report, the construction industry, which includes structural metal workers, recorded the highest number of fatal work injuries of any industry, with 1,154 workers killed on the job in 2000. About 55% of those killed in the structural metal worker trades died as a result of fall-related accidents, said the BLS.

Lewis once saw a co-worker fall from a stepladder that he'd placed atop five levels of scaffolding. "Keep in mind that the stepladders we use can be up to 18 feet high," he said. The scaffold flipped and the man was so seriously injured from the fall that he was permanently disabled.

"There's no doubt about it," said Eugene Howley, shop foreman at A.A. Samuels, "this is dangerous work. We work up high and carry around loads of sharp sheet metal." Howley has seen and heard his share of jobsite horror stories throughout his 17 years as a sheet metal worker. "Lots of cuts and stitches and a man who fell through a pre-cast floor he was cutting into," he said.

Jim Bailey, journeyman sheet metal worker and outside superintendent for Aerotech, lost his father in a worksite accident 30 years ago when he fell from 20 stories high. Bailey, who completed the Passport Program last year, admits that in spite of his father's tragic death, he took unnecessary risks himself prior to receiving safety training. "I trusted myself. I know I shouldn't have, but I did. Now I see the importance of working safer," he said.

One of the most important lessons Bailey took away from the training program, contrary to preconceived ideas among many sheet metal workers, is that working prudently need not affect one's efficiency. "A lot of guys think that it's harder to do things safely. Once you learn the methods, though, they become like second nature-and they don't slow you down on the job," he said.

Tim Dwyer, a sheet metal worker at Aerotech agreed. "In this business, you quickly learn that the fastest way to do things isn't necessarily the best - or smartest way," he said.

The Passport program in its efforts to raise awareness and educate workers, believes Lewis, is one of many indications that the industry is committed to creating a safer workforce. "It's just good sense," he said. "Lower accident rates mean lower liability costs and that's a benefit to a lot of people - not just our workers."

Lewis is convinced that contractors need to establish and maintain good safety practices in order to set a positive standard for their employees. One look around Aerotech's fabrication shop proves that Lewis walks like he talks. Workers wear protective gear on their eyes, ears and hands and several are fully clad in coveralls while operating machinery. "Danger" signs are posted throughout the factory and guardrails and large shield panels form barriers between machinery and passersby. Fire extinguishers are conveniently located on walls and posts; one is even mounted to the tow-motor. "I'm proud of what we do here to run a safe shop," said Lewis.

Bailey, for one, appreciates the lengths to which his employer goes to insure his as well as his co-workers' welfare. "It means a lot to me that the company is interested in my safety. They really care about us and we know it," he said.

"We want these men and women to be able to sit down to dinner with their families every night because they're safer, smarter workers while they're on the job," said Reilly.