The steel industry is at a loss to explain why twice as many union members have died this year than in all of last year, according to an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Six members of the United Steelworkers of America have died so far in accidents at North American steel mills, versus three in all of 2003.

United Steelworkers officials point to reduced work forces, the retirement of experienced workers and a labor agreement that rewrote job descriptions without sufficient attention to safety procedures.

With business picking up, steel makers must now produce more with fewer workers, and many workers are performing jobs that are new to them.

U.S. Steel President John P. Surma ordered a one-hour safety stand down earlier this year at the company's facilities following one serious accident. While the company has a better safety record than the industry, he said, "we still have more progress to make."

"We have a lot of people in new jobs," Surma said. "Considering the instability we've had, I think we've done a reasonable job."

The instability stems from the industry's financial problems. To survive, major producers negotiated a new contract with the USW that rewrote how dozens of jobs are performed. Steel producers also reduced their work forces, largely by giving older workers incentives to retire.

During the bargaining, saving as many jobs as possible and providing as much protection to displaced workers were rightfully the main priorities, while not as much consideration was given to safety issues, said Mike Wright, the USW's top safety and health official.

Union officials are examining this year's fatalities and serious injuries, but so far no pattern has emerged. They are simply left with a gut feeling that safety has been compromised.