MORE

Damage control

For a moment before dawn last January 18, Heath Green toyed with the idea of playing hooky from work.

Green, a 25-year-old pipefitter apprentice, considered not showing up at his job installing pipe for a subcontractor hired to help Texas Instruments, Inc. expand its semiconductor manufacturing facilities in North Dallas. Green had purchased a 1991 Ford half-ton truck just the day before, his wife, Barbara Jean Martin, recalls. He wanted to hop in for a joyride with Martin, whom he'd just wed two months earlier.

"Let's just take this truck and go down to the [Fort Worth] stock show," Martin recalls Green saying shortly after rousing from bed.

But Green, a strapping six-foot-one native Texan and a garrulous sort, was torn. He also wanted to show off his new wheels to his work buddies, who'd teased him mercilessly the week before. His colleagues had complained that Green, a youngster in the crowd, had talked incessantly about the prospective purchase and its tricky financing arrangements. He'd never really buy the truck, the co-workers had figured.

So Heath Green drove to work. It was a fateful decision.
Less then an hour after he arrived at the Texas Instruments site, Green climbed down unknowingly into his deathbed.

At about 8 that morning, Green lowered himself into a 12-foot-deep, 6-foot-wide pit to begin welding pipes. The pipes carried argon gas--an odorless, tasteless, colorless, but potentially deadly substance used to grow the silicon crystals needed for manufacturing semiconductor chips, the product on which Texas Instruments had built most of its $9.9 billion-a-year enterprise. Green was working at a construction site near Floyd Road, on the campus of TI's enormous headquarters east of the intersection between LBJ and Central Expressway.

What Green didn't know is that argon had already leaked into the small pit, displacing much of the oxygen. And within seconds of descending into the pit to replace temporary pipes with permanent fixtures, Green had passed out. Doctors would later discover that the argon had collapsed his lungs.

Ten minutes later--unaware of what had felled Green and that he was probably already dead--co-worker Tony Gleason, a 36-year-old journeyman pipefitter, jumped into the hole to rescue the apprentice. Gleason fell unconscious too.

After peering into the pit and seeing the two men lying unconscious at the bottom, other co-workers frantically summoned the Texas Instruments medical emergency unit. Within minutes, the company rescue team as well as the Dallas Fire Department were rushing to the site to save the men.

But these weren't the only units dispatched to the scene. With similar speed and alarm, a team of executives, a lawyer, and even a public relations officer--Texas Instruments' damage control unit--was sent zooming to the site. Its goal wasn't to rescue the workers, but to rescue the company--from potential lawsuits.

From the outset, TI executives must have assumed that the tragic incident would generate bad publicity, liability claims, and expensive litigation. Although the pipefitters weren't directly employed by TI, the company would most certainly possess the deepest pockets in any lawsuit. And as the property owner, TI at least had some potential liabilities.

No stranger to litigation, Texas Instruments was prepared for unpleasant situations such as this. The company maintains one of the most sophisticated, highly compensated legal departments in the nation. Its general counsel, Richard Agnich, earns $964,000 a year in salary and stock options. Bucking the electronics industry's decades-old tradition of relying on gentlemen's agreements for licensing fees, the company's legal department has managed to turn itself into a profit-maker. In four years alone, the department collected more than $1 billion from patents--according to annual reports--by initiating a series of lucrative patent infringement lawsuits against practically every major computer-maker in the industry. At any given moment, TI has dozens of law firms in courtrooms around the world hammering away at its cases.

So at the same time specially equipped emergency workers slithered on harnesses into the eerily still pit, pulling up the lifeless men one after the other, Texas Instruments public relations specialist Gail Chandler was standing just a few yards away yakking to reporters from WFAA-Channel 8. A company lawyer hovered nearby.

Gleason was the first to be pulled from the pit at around 8:30 a.m. He wasn't breathing and had no pulse, according to the account of a TI nurse who was at the scene. His pupils were already dilated. The nurse immediately began to resuscitate him. Some six minutes later, when Dallas paramedics detected a pulse, they loaded Gleason into an ambulance and careened off with sirens blaring to Medical City hospital.

At the hospital, however, Gleason never regained consciousness. Today, having suffered severe brain damage, he remains under round-the-clock medical care in what is described as a "vegetative state."  

A gaunt figure, Gleason lies in bed with oxygen-supplying tubes strapped to his nostrils. His eyes are usually shut, and his mouth typically hangs open. His hands and feet are bound to a physical therapy apparatus designed to keep his limbs stretched. He's unable to talk, move, or feed himself. He does, however, cry out in pain when physical therapists flex his limbs and body. It is the only sign of life his family sees, according to his wife's lawyer.

When Green was hauled to the surface next, he was probably already dead. Vomit covered his nose and mouth. Rescue workers tried to resuscitate him as well, but he never showed a pulse or took a breath. The argon had most likely deprived him of oxygen, collapsed his lungs, and suffocated him.

Green's body was transported to Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas, but the ambulance drivers didn't even bother to turn on the sirens. Hospital workers called Green's wife, who was still at home, to tell her that her husband had been involved in an industrial accident. She didn't know he was dead until she got there.

In some ways, Texas Instruments' adoption of an immediate defensive plan--even the quick deployment of a PR specialist--seems apt and reflects the company's savvy.

All the local newscasts reported on the incident and Green's death as their top story that night. TI spokeswoman Chandler told Channel 8 that the area had been checked for gas leaks before the pipefitters began their work. "But by the time the gentlemen entered the area, apparently the oxygen had dropped," Chandler said as the camera showed her standing near the pit.

And sure enough, the expected lawsuits against Texas Instruments didn't take long to materialize. Heath Green's wife and parents hired Dallas plaintiff's lawyers Joel Fineberg and Michael Shore. Within two months of the incident, the family had filed a negligence suit in state district court against Texas Instruments, as well as a federal claim against Green's direct employer, the California-based Process Piping.

Tony Gleason's wife has also hired a lawyer, though she hasn't filed suit yet. Roger Williams, the lawyer, said she was "too broken up" to talk for this story. Williams, who expects a claim of roughly $15 million, says he's only waiting for Texas Instruments to sort out its insurance coverage, and then he will file.

While Texas Instruments seems well-poised to fight these suits, its damage-control efforts so soon after the accident have already started to backfire.

Indeed, Green's lawyers contend that TI's actions amount to a cover-up. Fineberg and Shore have compiled evidence that sharply conflicts with Chandler's assertion to Channel 8 that the pit was checked for gas leaks before the men began work on that January morning. In the weeks following the accident, Texas Instruments executives tried to create a record of the tragedy that would limit their liability, according to company documents obtained by the lawyers. The TI execs even went so far as to encourage workers to curtail their descriptions of the incident. "Write now, pay later," one Texas Instruments executive warned in an internal electronic-mail message.

"The Texas Instruments executives found themselves in a bad situation," says lawyer Shore. "In their efforts to get out, they buried themselves in innuendo--direct and circumstantial evidence of a cover-up. The cover-up is going to create a bigger stink than the accident."

Green's lawyers share obvious, self-serving motivations for ascribing cynicism to TI's actions. But before a jury, the image of scrambling PR agents, executives, and lawyers--juxtaposed with the anguish of Green's widow--would undoubtedly cast one of Dallas' top corporate citizens in an unflattering light.

When Green's wife, Barbara Jean Martin of Lancaster, thinks back to that January day, she chokes up. During an interview in her lawyers' offices, her voice cracked several times.

"I want the people who were responsible to take responsibility," she said.

Texas Instruments executives have declined to comment in detail about the January 18 accident.

"Texas Instruments does not comment on pending litigation," company spokeswoman Chandler said in a written statement. "We regret the efforts by personal injury lawyers to attempt to try this case in the media and to further sensationalize a tragic event. We are confident that when all of the facts are presented in court, TI and its employees will be vindicated."

Chandler did, however, make sure the Dallas Observer had a copy of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's penalties assessed against Process Piping, Inc., the pipefitters' direct employer. The message is obvious: Process Piping holds the liability, not TI. Process Piping is a subsidiary of Kinetic Systems, a closely held, California-based company with 1,700 employees and $230 million in annual revenues. Lawyers for the company did not return telephone calls for this story.  

In July, OSHA, the federal agency charged with regulating safety in the workplace, slapped both Process Piping and Texas Instruments with substantial fines. The subcontractor's fine, for $84,000, was much steeper than TI's $18,900 penalty.

In the penalty citation, inspectors from OSHA's Dallas office characterized Process Piping's actions as both "serious" and "willful." The company was cited for failing to train the employees properly, failing to put protective devices such as oxygen equipment and harnesses near the site, and failing to regularly and competently inspect the pit.

Green had been working for 18 months for Process Piping as it installed pipes for Texas Instruments' much-lauded, $2-billion project to expand its semiconductor manufacturing facilities. Although Process Piping had employed hundreds of workers on that job over the course of a year, on the Saturday when Green met his death, fewer than a dozen workers were at the site.

OSHA termed Texas Instruments' violations as only "serious." In their report, OSHA inspectors said the company had "demonstrated a pattern of neglect by permitting unauthorized employees" to enter such areas as the pit--where air didn't circulate well and dangerous conditions could exist in what is known in OSHA lingo as a "confined space." Inspectors also found that Texas Instruments did not properly verify that all employees working in the area were properly trained, as the company is obligated to do under federal law.

Green, for instance, had never been trained at all in procedures for working in a confined space. The young apprentice had no idea what was safe and what wasn't. If he'd received training, he might have checked the oxygen level in the pit himself or at least kept a harness close by.

Both Texas Instruments and Process Piping have appealed the OSHA rulings; their appeals are pending. When OSHA announced the fines in July, TI sent out bulletins to television reporters stating that the penalties were "inappropriate." By OSHA's standards, TI's fine was significant. Furthermore, the agency was taking the unusual measure of citing Texas Instruments when it wasn't even the men's direct employer.

The OSHA findings against Texas Instruments touch on the most troubling aspect of the tragedy and the company's actions in its aftermath--and on the events that support allegations of a cover-up. Indeed, OSHA claims that Texas Instruments has repeatedly and negligently allowed subcontractors to enter confined spaces without having determined whether the sites are safe.

Joe Lindsay, a confined space coordinator for Texas Instruments, is at the center of these troubling claims.

Lindsay, a high school graduate who started out 10 years ago as a plumber for TI and now earns $57,000 annually, doesn't have the look or background of a corporate drone who'd simply parrot the company line. A beefy guy with deeply set eyes, Lindsay wears his salt-and-pepper hair cropped short, almost in a mohawk, with a small ponytail in the back. At his deposition, he wore a T-shirt and jeans.

But Lindsay is "the person they call" to handle situations that require workers to enter confined spaces on TI property, according to a deposition taken a month after the accident.

Federal law requires TI to investigate such spaces for safety conditions and issue a permit allowing work to take place only if certain standards are met. Specifically, in the kind of conditions in which Green and Gleason were asphyxiated, federal safety rules require that workers have oxygen monitors and safety harnesses on hand so they can be yanked out in an emergency. The oxygen levels also must be measured by both the hiring company and the subcontractor and deemed safe. The rules call for workers entering the confined space to be checked to see whether they possess proper training and identification cards that document their training.

Only after checking all of those things was Lindsay supposed to issue a permit allowing Process Piping's Green and Gleason to enter the pit area.

In his deposition, as well as in other documents Texas Instruments has produced, Lindsay claims he did check for the proper safety equipment, training badges, and oxygen levels.

But a tremendous amount of evidence contradicts him.
The city's rescue workers found no oxygen monitors or harnesses near the site where the men lay lifeless. TI even reported in its initial log of events that the oxygen monitor was found without working batteries a ways away from the pit--across the street in the Process Piping construction trailer. Process Piping employee Carl Trewek, Green's and Gleason's supervisor, who was also responsible for checking the pit's safety and, in fairness, has a vested interest in shunting the blame to TI, testified in his deposition that Lindsay never checked whether Trewek or his co-workers were wearing their training badges.  

Texas Instruments has produced one document that corroborates Lindsay's version of events. But that very paper is what initially raised concerns about a possible cover-up. It is a "confined space permit" that Lindsay filled out on the morning of the accident, allowing the men to enter the pit. The permit states that it was issued at 7 a.m. that day. Its second page includes an extended safety checklist. The copy that Texas Instruments provided to Green's lawyers shows that Lindsay made specific marks indicating he'd verified the men's harnesses, proper training, and air monitors--just as he should have.

But that document's thoroughness is precisely the problem.
On many of the confined space permits Lindsay had issued to subcontractors before the accident--documents that have since been obtained by Fineberg and Shore--the TI employee never bothered to mark the checklist. His sudden attention to detail raises suspicions about why Lindsay had done so on January 18. If Lindsay had wanted to doctor up the papers after the accident--as Green's lawyers allege he did--he would have had time.

An hour or so after the accident, Lindsay, who helped pull Green and Gleason out of the pit, went alone to his office to retrieve the permit--something even TI concedes. Green's lawyers claim he altered the document at that time. (Lindsay's lawyers from the firm Haynes and Boone, which has been retained by Texas Instruments, did not return calls for this story.)

Another piece of evidence, found by Heath Green's widow, also casts doubt on Lindsay's version of events.

After her husband died, Barbara Jean Martin went through his wallet and found a credit card receipt. Green, it turns out, had stopped at an Exxon gas station more than 10 minutes away from the pit to purchase some Coca-Colas--probably to share with his co-workers, his widow speculates.

The receipt shows Green paid $1.59 for the Cokes, but more significantly, that the pipefitter made the purchase at 6:53 a.m. If he was at the Exxon station then, he arguably wouldn't have been at the Texas Instruments site seven minutes later when Lindsay's permit shows he'd already checked Green's badge for proper training.

In the legal wrangling that has ensued since the tragedy, TI executives have been extremely protective of Joe Lindsay. Indeed, his superiors have stood behind his work. Lindsay hasn't been disciplined by TI, and he's kept his job. The company has even paid lawyers $350 an hour to help Lindsay pursue personal bankruptcy--a tactic that Green's lawyers claim was intended to delay their litigation. Lindsay is named individually as a defendant in the Green family's lawsuit.

(To jump-start the litigation process, lawyers Fineberg and Shore even offered to pay all of Lindsay's debts--amounting to about $20,000--so he could get out of bankruptcy. His TI-paid lawyers refused the offer.)

The Texas Instruments executives have also delayed several times having Lindsay re-deposed--he was first questioned by Green's lawyers in February--now that so much evidence contradicting his initial testimony has been discovered. Last week, U.S. District Judge Joe Kendall, who presides over the related case against Process Piping, insisted that TI present Lindsay for a questioning period at the courthouse, even though such matters are usually taken care of in lawyers' offices.

At his deposition, one of Green's lawyers asked Texas Instruments corporate vice president Robert Adair: "Are you going to allow Joe Lindsay to continue issuing permits until a jury finds him liable in this case?"

"Yes, sir," the 26-year veteran Texas Instruments executive answered, without missing a beat.

Joe Lindsay isn't the only Texas Instruments employee who's caused problems with his paper trail.

Missteps are evident among those much higher up on the corporate ladder. Specifically, Shaunna Sowell, a TI vice president of corporate staff whose responsibilities include devising worldwide company policies on environmental and safety issues, sent some potentially damaging e-mail messages that were obtained by Green's lawyers during the discovery process.

In her videotaped deposition, Sowell, a 12-year TI veteran, looks and acts the part of a corporate team member. Sporting a neatly trimmed bob, she wears a tailored suit and shows little emotion.

Pressed about Lindsay's apparently slovenly safety inspections, Sowell didn't even flinch. "I would agree that he did not meet performance expectations in documenting the permit," she testified.

But in computer messages she sent in the weeks following the accident, Sowell was much more strident.

Two days after the tragedy--on January 20--Sowell sent along the documentation that health workers had already completed about the accident, and warned company lawyers and other executives that the papers opened some doors Texas Instruments didn't want to leave ajar. "I was concerned about write now/pay later and I kwow [sic] you've been working hard to control and make appropriate any communication on this topic," she wrote.  

In a message sent a week later, she seems to have fine-tuned her concept for Texas Instruments' stance on the accident, and already seems to have some regrets about the take-charge approach the company had exhibited on that day. "...If it appears that TI is taking the lead on an accident 'owned' by another company rather than play a facilitation role, we could position ourselves to appear as we believe we're more 'liable' than we actually are," Sowell wrote.

In the same message, Sowell seemed upset that TI health workers had communicated too loosely about the incident. "I can't believe that after all the efforts to pay attention to 'write now, pay later,' they sent Health Center notices out that were generally broadcast discussing the accident and then inaccurately recorded the events in the OSHA log. It appears there is another opportunity for teamwork and role definition."

At the same time she was telling her fellow executives how to stanch the flow of bad information internally, Sowell cut off the flow of information to the media. In an e-mail message to public relations specialist Chandler a week after the accident, Sowell wrote: "Since we could explain little in addition to what has already been released in the public forum, we believe it would raise more questions rather than help and we would rather not communicate further on this incident."

Sowell wanted Chandler to stop putting in writing anything about the deaths. "I would prefer to see no formal internal communication at this time. Interest in this event has somewhat diminished and I prefer not to revive it now," Sowell wrote.

Barbara Jean Martin's interest in the events of January 18, however, has in no way diminished.

When Heath Green learned in 1995 that he'd obtained one of the highly sought-after spots as an apprentice in the Dallas Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 100 union, he could barely contain his excitement, Martin says. For Green, the opportunity to go through five years of training for journeymen status in a well-paid craft represented a way out of the series of odd jobs he'd held up until then.

Green acted like a Boy Scout preparing for a merit badge. On the Sunday before he was supposed to report to his first assignment with Process Piping, Green actually practiced his commute--making the one-hour trek from his home in Lancaster to the Texas Instruments facility in North Dallas where he was scheduled to begin his pipefitter's training.

"He didn't want to be late or get lost on Monday," recalls Martin, who went along for the test run.

Martin, a veterinarian's assistant, met Green when he was working at a feed store in Lancaster. Born and raised in the small town, Green had worked for his dad in construction, and when that business slowed, he took a job at the feed store. Martin had stopped there several times without noticing the tall, stocky Green. But he'd noticed her.

When the feed store threw a customer appreciation party and Martin attended, Green got up the nerve to talk to her. "I always pass you on my way to work, and you never wave," Martin recalls him saying. With the ice finally broken, the two grew friendly. It wasn't until three years later--two months before Green's death--that the couple married. Their wedding was held at Lancaster's old train depot. The couple wore ranch clothes and snapped their photos with horses in the background.

In Lancaster, Green was well known and liked. After his death, the local paper ran a front-page story titled: "Community Mourns Death of 'Sweetest Person' You'd Ever Meet."

His wife remembers him that way too. When his father needed money for his business, Green personally went into debt to help him out.

Shortly after he died, Martin drove the used truck he'd bought back to the dealership. Since she could no longer depend on Green's paycheck, she couldn't afford the car payments. She figured the dealers wouldn't exactly receive the truck with open arms, but she was wrong. She says they'd grown so fond of Green during the usual haggling about the car's price that they starting crying when they found out about his death. They immediately took the car back.

Green had few concerns about his safety at the Texas Instruments site, his widow recalls. As an apprentice, he assumed his superiors knew what they were doing. She doesn't remember him ever worrying about possible gas leaks.

Ironically, he did worry about his wife's exposure to gases used in animal anesthesia--especially with operations on small birds. "You can't help but breathe in some of that gas," Martin recalls telling her husband.  

Shortly before his death, Green told his wife that he planned to rig up some equipment so she could protect herself in those situations.

He didn't live long enough to do it--perhaps because Texas Instruments and Process Piping failed to make sure that Green and Gleason, his potential rescuer, possessed the safety equipment required by federal law.

And while Process Piping representatives attended her husband's funeral, Martin has told her lawyers that no one from Texas Instruments even bothered to send a condolence card acknowledging his death.


Sponsor Content

Newsletters

All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >