LIPSITZ & PONTERIO represents a Buffalo man who worked in the Coke Oven Division at Bethlehem Steel Corporation for over thirty years. During much of his time at the plant, he worked on the topside of the coke oven batteries, either as a lid man or as a larry car driver. These were very difficult job assignments, performed under very stressful conditions. Our client was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2002 and underwent an operation for the removal of a portion of his lung, followed by lengthy radiation treatments. Fortunately, he is still alive, and he and his wife will be able to enjoy the results of their patient determination to obtain justice from the companies that built, designed and maintained the coke ovens, as well as the companies that insulated them with cancer-causing asbestos.
As far as we have been able to determine, this was the first lawsuit in the Western New York area to seek damages from the coke oven companies, not only for their careless use of asbestos but also for their failure to contain the harmful dust and gases emitted by the coking process.
We also represent three other families in legal claims for disease caused by exposure to coke oven emissions. This is not surprising because the federal government predicted nearly thirty years ago that 250 workers would die annually from cancer related to coke oven emissions.
Here are some of the things that the coke oven manufacturers knew and did, all without informing the men on top of the ovens:
1. British scientists published the results of a study in 1936 showing that the incidence of death due to lung cancer among coke oven chargers was nearly three times greater than it was for matched controls.
2. In 1954, scientists at the University of Cincinnati told the companies who built the coke ovens at Bethlehem Steel to get the records of workers who had severe exposures to coal tar fumes. They specified larry car drivers and other job assignments. The point of the study was to determine the cause of death.
3. The lid men were considered to be the most exposed job classification in the coke oven operation. In 1957, the industry considered sampling the air in their breathing zones but was concerned about “possible unfavorable reactions.” In other words, the men might start asking questions.
4. In 1957, one of the country’s most respected researchers in the area of occupational cancer informed the companies that built the coke ovens at Bethlehem Steel that rats exposed to the inhalation of hot coal tar fumes were getting lung cancer. The industry did nothing to warn the workers.
By 1959, the industry learned from a review of its own records that workers on the top and side of the ovens were dying in excessive numbers from lung cancer. Nothing was done to inform the workers. Instead, the industry continued to study the situation. Coke oven workers continued to die.