In Oakland, Calif., a man rushed into a 700-gallon chemical-sludge tank to rescue a fellow worker overcome by fumes. The co-worker was critically injured but survived. The rescuer died a short time later at a local hospital.
Near Atlanta, a cleaning woman poured a sulfuric-acid cleaner into a plugged drain that someone had tried to clear out with a lye solution. The mixture exploded so violently that the woman was blown into an adjoining room and burned over 80 percent of her body.
In Los Angeles, two employees of a metal manufacturing shop inadvertently mixed two compounds, creating a gas that nearly killed them.
These accidents in the past year and a half involved vastly different compounds.
But occupational-safety and environmental-protection experts say they have one thing in common: They occurred because the people involved could not read.
Although no group keeps statistics linking literacy problems to environmental and industrial accidents, many safety experts and literacy professionals believe there is a close correlation between low educational levels found among some U.S. workers and occupational and environmental safety.
Safety materials are "written at a 10th-grade level, but the average worker reads at the seventh-grade level and many workers don't read at all," said Meta Snyder, director of the National Center for Hazard Communications at the University of Maryland.
"The majority of accidents come because (workers) do not understand or cannot read the information they need to protect themselves effectively," said Mark Curran, training director for ERM West, the Walnut Creek, Calif., division of the Exton environmental consulting firm.
"It is a major problem," said Richard Lemen, acting director of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.
Safety and literacy professionals cite some of the following areas of concern:
-- Railroads. Although the industry has always employed some workers with low educational levels, increasingly those workers have come face-to-face with hazardous materials hauled as freight, and with emergencies those materials may trigger in transit, said Marilyn Powers, program coordinator for the George Meany Center for Labor Studies in Silver Spring, Md.
The center conducts one-day training sessions to educate railroad workers about hazardous materials.
-- Petrochemicals. In the refining industry, literacy problems most often crop up among workers hired to do the dirtiest work - cleaning tanks and sites saturated with the hazardous and sometimes explosive residues of the refining process, industrial hygiene experts say.
Because these jobs are so undesirable, oil companies often hire outside contractors.
The contractors, some experts say, then often hire people desperate for work - including low-skilled Americans or foreign-born workers for whom English is a second language.
"They bring in people who are not properly trained (mostly because they lack reading skills), who are not fluent in English," said Diane Factor, an industrial hygiene specialist at the UCLA Institute of Industrial Relations and a former U.S. Occupational, Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspector.
However, Bill Taylor, a representative of the American Petroleum Institute, said the industry's safety standards were high and several studies had shown "no significant differences" in accident rates between contract personnel and permanent workers.
Still, experts such as Factor contend the problem is real. "There are major accidents with major injuries as a result (of literacy problems). It's a persistent problem, and it terrifies me," Factor said.
Poor reading skills also haunt companies that deal extensively with chemicals, although the Chemical Manufacturers Association and representatives of large chemical companies such as DuPont Co. say illiteracy poses no problems.
"If we advertise openings for 40 jobs, we get 5,000 applications, and we can choose the most literate people," said Mike Deak, an employee safety and health expert at DuPont.
But others say that companies such as DuPont are not the problem. "Fifty percent of workers are employed by companies with fewer than 100 employees, and these are not companies that have a bunch of Ph.Ds out there on the floor using chemicals," said Patrick
McGuire, a Bernardsville, N.J., safety consultant.
Many of the small companies buy products from large chemical companies and then either repackage the compounds for distribution or use them in their own production processes. Often these small companies don't have the resources to train their workers properly, particularly if the workers cannot read well or speak English, McGuire said.
As a result, their workers are at higher risk of being injured by chemicals, he said.
The realization that low literacy levels can undermine environmental and occupational safety has spurred a variety of programs to teach workers about chemicals and other toxic substances.
Some companies, such as Houghton International in Boston, hire consultants to train workers to deal safely with hazardous materials. The sessions use materials written at sixth-grade levels, or lower. Houghton makes processing fluids for the metal and paper industries.
The effort to reach workers with low reading skills has not been cheap. Indeed, it has even affected profitability, said Bruce Schuck, a Houghton official.
"Our training costs 10 years ago were close to zero because training could be done by supervisors," Shuck said. "But in the last three to four years we have spent $100,000 to $150,000 on consultants to teach groups of two or three workers at a time, (and) to buy cartoon (training) magazines and videos that are presented at fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade levels."
Many companies, though, find it difficult to identify workers who can't read, because these workers often find ways to cope with their jobs, literacy experts say.
For instance, people who cannot read will find buddies who will read key materials to them. In plants with foreign employees, those who cannot read or understand English often designate a colleague who knows English to keep them posted on safety regulations.
Others depend on family members to help them. "We have people who speak English but can't read a lick" and who take materials home to have their children read them for them, said Robert Guadiana, district director of the Steel Workers International Union in Los Angeles.
The ability of companies to find out which employees cannot read is also constrained by privacy considerations.
At GE Transportation Systems in Erie, Pa., there are "people on the floor who work with chemicals and should know how to read," but who don't, said Kim Higby, the company's environmental, health and safety specialist.
"No one will name names," she said. As a result, the company tries to simplify how it communicates with workers, Higby said.
"We try to use as many pictures as we can to depict what we are trying to say so that we don't have to depend on words," she said.