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“It was extremely difficult to control the truck at the time, and I had both my wife (two
months pregnant) and my 16-month-old daughter screaming and crying in a panic...My wife has developed a fear of the only vehicle we have, understandably so. She fears other tires may also be defective and that we may be in danger” (Nathan). Much like the 4,300 similar complaints the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has received, this Firestone tire consumer warned the agency of the faulty product and asked it to take action. Imagine a similar problem happening to you. While leisurely traveling down the highway, your SUV is suddenly thrown to the pavement. The tire tread on your left rear tire separates from the steel belt, and your vehicle can not overcome its speed of 65-mph, and crashes uncontrollably. The SUV rolls over, killing your family. Even though you complain, the NHTSA does nothing about the problem, and you hear about other similar accidents.
On August 9, 2000, Bridgestone/Firestone, an international tire manufacturer, issued a recall of all its ATX, ATX II, and Wilderness AT tires. To date, the company has replaced 6.5 million tires (“Firestone death...”). Ford had contracted with Firestone to supply tires for all the SUV’s it produced. Together Firestone and Ford investigated the problems with the recalled tires. Despite much bickering between the two companies, the tires failed due to flaws in Firestone’s manufacturing and production.
The NHTSA has reported a total of 148 deaths and 525 injuries involving tread separations, blowouts, and other problems with Firestone tires. The Middle East has reported at least seven deaths and Venezuela has reported forty-six due to the same kind of problem (“Firestone death...”).
From both foreign countries and the United States, complaints state that the tires lose their casings when traveling at high speeds. The tire maker claimed it knew nothing of the tread problems until late July, yet consumers have warned the company since the mid 1990’s (Nathan). It also stated that the complaints it finally received did not raise any “red flags” because in relative terms, few tires had failed; less than one in every 10,000 of the 47 million ATX, ATX II, and Wilderness AT tires produced since 1991 have failed (Nathan). Most of the recalled tires came from the Decatur, Illinois plant, the main concentration of the investigation. The company claimed that a workers’ strike at that plant in the nineties, when replacement workers made the product, caused most of the problems.
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Most automobile consumers do not realize that the supplier warranties original tires on a
brand new vehicle, rather than the car company. When problems exist with original tires, the supplier should take the blame. The biggest flaw in Firestone’s manufacturing came from its push for production; Firestone often pressured workers to make the largest amount of tires possible. Alan Hogan, a former employee at the Firestone plant in Wilson, North Carolina, explained to the Akron Beacon Journal that he had witnessed this with his own eyes. Hogan saw the use of “dry stock,” a combination of no longer tacky steel belts and rubber. Workers placed it in a storage area called the “bank” and then used it in production. Particularly after a shutdown, supervisors would pressure the workers to try and make the “dry stock” sticky again by swabbing the tires with a benzene compound. This compound could be found often at an arm’s length away from the workers since they used it so much (Meyer). By using this compound and making the “dry stock” tacky again, the workers could reuse the rubber and make more tires. Jan Wagner, who worked at the Decatur plant, said that the company also pressured workers to repair sidewall blisters by punching holes in the tire with an awl. Instead of throwing out the bad tire and making a new one, workers used this technique to speed up the process. The workers placed these so-called “green tires” on the floor to make room for more tires. The rubber, usually not dry yet, picked up dirt and other foreign matter from the floor (“Firestone CEO…”).
Firestone also had a tendency to use bad rubber in production, trying to make a large amount of tires. Bad rubber, which had barely passed inspection, was often mixed with good rubber then used to make new tires (“Firestone CEO…”). Hogan also saw oil, water, cigarette butts, finger tape, chunks of hardened rubber, and metal or wood shavings mixed with the tire stock (Meyer).
Lonnie Bart held many positions in the Decatur plant and confessed that steel belt material should stay in a climate-controlled room. Corrosion and rust, which make it hard for rubber to adhere to steel, also would be avoided with the use of a controlled room. The supply of rubber often stayed in other areas for up to thirty minutes. The company, although knowing it should throw out that material, often reprocessed it to remove rust and put it back into the storage area instead (“Firestone CEO…”).
Besides the controversy with Firestone production flaws, another factor that contributed to the faulty tires came from the size of the Decatur plant. The total size of the massive plant, 800,000 square feet, created a major problem with storage and working space within the company. The company set up plastic tents over machines to protect them from leaking roofs. Moisture causes corrosion of the steel belts that, in turn, cause belt separations; thus, those leaks became a critical factor in failures (Meyer).
The workers, as well as their supervisors, knew about the obvious problems. Management at the Firestone plants knew of the “dry stock” and crowded working conditions. Hogan once rejected a load of dry stock adding with it a note that said, “‘If you get this roll of steel, I’ve rejected it,’” then signed and dated it. The next day the roll came back to him for inspection with a message from another tire builder that said, “‘ Hey Alan, I got that message you left on that rejected roll of steel.’” That roll had been sent to the stock room, re-ticketed as acceptable material and then sent back into the plant for production (Meyer). Plant supervisors had access to information concerning rejected material, the number of bad tires, and also the machines that were not functioning properly.
A company computer called the Intermac, as well as a continuously rolling video monitor showed shutdown machines along with the areas in the plant that had problems with material such as “dry stock” (Meyer). Obviously, the company chose to ignore these problems.
The tire industry has made great strides since the 1970’s. Tires last longer and are less puncture prone and contribute to better fuel economy and a greater grip on roads. However, the public doesn’t understand how important they are to vehicle safety and performance (Ulrich). The bigger demand for automobiles has created a greater demand for tires also. As the market grows, so does the push for production. Flaws in the Bridgestone/Firestone’s manufacturing and production process caused the defects the recalled ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires. Pressure to make a greater quantity of tires, laziness with production quality, and lack of strong management all contributed to the flaws in Firestone tires. The recall has affected millions of consumers, not only through accidents, deaths and injuries, but also from a rise in prices and a decreased trust in the company. Firestone needs to take responsibility for its defective tires and fix its problems for the future to regain the trust of present and future customers.
“Firestone CEO, former workers answer questions in tire lawsuits.” 27 October 2000
“Firestone death toll continues to climb.” Akron Beacon Journal 7 November 2000
Meyer, Ed. “Firestone whistle-blower gains enemies.” Akron Beacon Journal 3 December 2000 http://www.ohio.com/firestone/docs/008666.htm>.
Nathan, Sara. “Drivers complained of tread problems years before recall.” USAToday.com 15 November 2000, Final ed., Cover story. http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?TS>.
Ulrich, Lawrence. “Failures of tires may stay unsolved.” Akron Beacon Journal 1 October 2000 http://www/ohio.com/firestone/docs/028144.htm>.