Case Study: The Death of a “Brother” at a Ford Production Plant

Editor’s Note: Many companies are reluctant to publicly discuss an on-the-job fatality. Here at Ford, we have been disclosing fatalities since we began publishing our annual sustainability reports in 2000. This year, we have chosen to talk about a recent death that had a profound impact on our Company. By telling this story, we hope to spread that impact and further increase awareness of workplace safety. Find out more information on our safety record.

It was supposed to be routine.

It was the day after Christmas, in 2009, and the Kentucky Truck Plant in Louisville was preparing to remove some overhead beams in the assembly area – a standard job done countless times at manufacturing facilities. The crew was even running ahead of schedule.

Ronald Cassady was one of several millwrights1 readying to remove a 10-foot-long steel beam. The beam – weighing 220 pounds– was 12 feet above the plant floor. Tragically, the heavy beam dropped onto Ron Cassady. He died a short while later at a local hospital. He was 54 years old.

Cassady’s death ripped a hole in the tight-knit plant, which employs about 4,000 workers, and it drove home a sobering message for Ford employees worldwide: no task should ever be considered routine.

“Ron’s death had a very profound impact on our Company,” said Dr. Gregory Stone, Ford’s director of occupational health and safety.

Ford has made significant strides in reducing on-the-job injuries, but we’re not at zero yet. We continue to work on all fronts to improve safety, from the design of manufacturing lines to changing worker behaviors. In order to get to the next level – a goal of zero deaths or serious injuries – a cultural shift needs to take place, Stone explained.

For example, it may be uncomfortable to correct a worker on how he or she is doing a job, or more awkward still to report a colleague for violating safety procedures, Stone said. But isn’t it better to do that, he continued, than to stay silent and risk a life-threatening accident?

All serious on-the-job incidents receive in-depth Company reviews to understand what went wrong, how the incident might have been avoided and how to prevent something similar from happening again. After Cassady’s death, UAW-Ford safety teams took a more emotional approach, creating a 15-minute documentary that goes straight to the heart.

“We wanted to tell Ron’s story. If watching this video doesn’t change behaviors, I don’t know what will,” said John Fleming, Ford’s executive vice president for global manufacturing and labor affairs.

The documentary, which was required viewing at all Ford manufacturing facilities, isn’t easy to watch. One after another, coworkers describe Cassady – a 16-year Ford veteran and a lifelong millwright – as a good man and a great friend who “smiled so wide that his eyes disappeared.” They also share the painful details of a day that went horribly wrong and that continues to haunt.

“Time will slowly help all of us gain closure in the loss of Ron Cassady, but we will never – and we should never – forget what happened,” Bob King, who has since been elected to president of the UAW, says in the documentary’s opening moments. “None of us can afford to be complacent where the health, safety and well-being of our UAW members and other Ford employees are concerned.”

The video emphasizes the fact that the team of workers had performed the task hundreds of times before. “I don’t think we can use the word ‘routine’ anymore, because this job was routine,” said Judy Robison, UAW health and safety representative. “I don’t care how many times you’ve done this. Every time, it can be a little bit different.”

The video reminds employees that it is critical to report not just accidents that result in injuries, but the near misses, too, in order to help improve safety systems and processes.

“It was just a couple little things to go wrong,” said Danny Huffman, a Kentucky plant safety engineer. “And you have something that bad happen.”

  1. Millwrights are crafts or trades people who work on the construction and maintenance of machinery.