The sprawling factories used to go unnoticed under the bright desert sun. But for the past year, a parade of screaming fire engines has been piercing the calm surrounding the two air-bag-inflator manufacturing plants in Mesa, Ariz. The local fire department has responded to 21 emergency calls at one of the plants, the latest on Dec. 2. Now, with every rumor of a new problem, helicopters from nearby television stations swarm over the facility ready to record the slightest puff for the evening broadcast.
For owner TRW Inc., the frenzied atmosphere has become more than a public-relations nightmare. One contract construction worker was killed in an explosion at a facility, and a contract welder sustained extensive burns. State and local authorities launched at least three separate investigations into the company's safety procedures. A six-month grand-jury inquiry by the Arizona attorney general's office ended on Nov. 13 with the company paying $1.7 million in fines. The state agency overseeing occupational safety fined TRW $89,000 after it found that the company didn't have an effective fire-protection and fire-prevention program.
OVERREACTING? What's more, the Mesa Fire Dept. took the unprecedented step on Sept. 26 of shutting down one of TRW's plants for two days--forcing the nation's second-largest air-bag producer to scramble to meet customer orders. "It's supposed to be safety, quality, and quantity, in that order," says one Mesa worker who switched out of an area hit by fires after a harrowingly close call. "Well, they just wanted quantity, quantity, quantity."
Cleveland-based TRW argues that state and local authorities are over-reacting. Company officials, supported by many employees, say they have taken all necessary precautions to protect workers from a manufacturing process that is inherently hazardous. For example, they say they have automated the processes in which explosions are most likely to occur to isolate workers from danger. They also have poured $50 million into sophisticated safety systems. "We never compromise safety," says John A. Janitz, executive vice-president of TRW's Occupant Restraint Systems Group, adding that TRW has set the industry standard for air-bag-plant extinguishing systems.
That may be. But critics note that other major players in the rapidly growing $5 billion business, including industry leader Morton International Inc., haven't had such persistent problems. Morton says it hasn't had a serious incident since two in 1989, when it and other makers turned to the nascent air-bag business in a big way. Officials at the Utah Occupational Safety & Health Administration and local fire authorities confirm Morton's safety record at its three Utah facilities. Moreover, unlike TRW, neighboring companies operating innately dangerous facilities in the Phoenix suburb of Mesa, such as McDonnell Douglas Corp., pay for on-site fire brigades. TRW says it considered creating its own fire unit but determined that Mesa firefighters were more than adequate.
The contrasting records have led some law enforcers to wonder whether TRW, in its zeal to meet soaring demand for air bags, has put production ahead of safety. "We are concerned about workers' safety and the safety of the citizens of Mesa," says Mesa Fire Dept. Captain Clifford Puckett, whose squad services the area's 320,000 residents. Even some of the plants' 3,500 employees question whether their jobs are worth the risk. Some of them complain of dizziness or a ringing in the ears following explosions. "[The risk] does loom in the back of your mind," says one TRW engineer in Mesa. "We are working with unbelievably volatile chemicals."
No kidding. In general, air-bag inflators rely on the chemical sodium azide, which is combined with an oxidizer and other materials to make the propellant that inflates the bags. Sodium azide becomes volatile when mixed with other chemicals. Passenger-side inflators, which are manufactured at one of the Mesa plants, use 10 times as much propellant as those for driver-side bags. A sharp deceleration triggers the inflators, which set off the air bag.
UNFAIR RAP. Getting the chemistry just right has meant big business. Air bags have been one of TRW's fastest-growing businesses (chart). To meet increasing demand, the conglomerate produced 65 new air-bag models in 1994 and doubled its overall output from a year earlier, to nearly 10 million units. TRW plans to increase production to 13 million this year. With sales nearing $2 billion, the air-bag business will account for about one-quarter of TRW's estimated $445 million in net profits this year, powering a strong financial performance after medicre returns in the early '90s.
But TRW still can't shake accusations of lapses in its safety practices. Janitz argues that the intense scrutiny is unfair, and he questions whether TRW is being measured by the same yardstick as its rivals. Company supporters wonder if fires and explosions at other manufacturers' more remote plants are simply going unnoticed. "The types of incidents they've had at TRW are no different than anywhere else," says Fred McIntyre, an explosives expert in Long Beach, Miss. "The difference is the City of Mesa is tuned in to the alarm system." Morton says all mishaps are properly reported.
Still, rivals admit they could face similar problems. "I knock on wood every day," says Jim Burtelow, president of Takata Moses Lake Inc., an air-bag maker in Moses Lake, Wash.
At TRW, supersensitive optical scanners have been used since 1990 to detect the early signs of a fire and to deploy high-speed extinguishers within milliseconds. Janitz explains that many incidents logged by the fire department don't involve the combustion of propellant. Rather, he says, they are more often the result of TRW's extinguishing systems, which can be triggered faster than the blink of an eye. "TRW has never had a fatal manufacturing accident or an accident that resulted in a serious injury in making more than 25 million air bags," the company states.
Still, TRW's substantial safety mechanisms weren't enough to save Tony Fox, a construction worker employed by a TRW subcontractor, who was killed in a 1994 blast. While he was grinding a hole in a wall at the driver-side-bag plant, a spark set off an explosion of sodium-azide propellant, fatally wounding Fox and injuring six others. "It's a miracle more people weren't killed," says Dave Aguilar, an electrician who was among the injured. The families of two hurt workers filed lawsuits against TRW. Following an inquiry, the Industrial Commission of Arizona faulted the company for failing to train workers properly and for not having adequate fire-protection procedures in place. TRW has appealed those findings, arguing that it's not responsible for mistakes made by contract workers. A settlement is expected soon.
TRW's troubles have continued to plague its passenger-side air-bag plant. After an explosion in May, firefighters were kept waiting for eight minutes outside the facility while security tried to get permission to admit them. That incident was followed in September by two more explosions within five days of one another, each involving hundreds of pounds of propellant. "They were the straws that broke the camel's back," says the Fire Dept.'s Puckett. The next day, the department shut down the plant.
AMBULANCE PACT. TRW and the fire department have since worked out a 15-point plan for improving safety. Among other things, the company has eliminated its practice of grinding the sodium azide and oxidizer together, which fire officials believe was the source of some explosions. TRW has also installed additional barriers to stop the spread of fires and hired an outside consultant to upgrade safety systems.
Despite the improvements, TRW is still jumpy, say some employees. When a worker waited nearly an hour for an ambulance after accidentally backing a forklift off a 5-ft. platform, some employees say they were worried managers were reluctant to call for help out of fear of attracting more media attention. Soon after, workers recall, about a dozen employees met privately to assure one another that an ambulance would be called immediately in the event of another accident. The company doesn't "want the word TRW to go over our radio channels because the media pick up on it right away," says Puckett. A TRW spokesman says all incidents are reported promptly to the proper authorities.
For the moment, TRW's shipments to Ford, GM, and other auto makers haven't been slowed by the fires and explosions. And like the rest of the industry, TRW plans over the next few years to replace the sodium azide used in its inflators with other, less volatile chemicals. For an industry making life-saving devices, those changes can't come too soon.
By Zachary Schiller in Cleveland and Eric Schine in Mesa, Ariz.