An Expert Warns That Cheap Bolts and Screws Can't Hold the Country Together

updated 11/14/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/14/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

Last Dec. 22, construction worker Calvin Davis, 51, was working high in the steel skeleton of a new General Motors assembly plant in Spring Hill, Tenn., tightening bolts with a torque wrench. Suddenly one of the bolts sheared, and Davis, thrown off balance, plummeted 65 feet to his death. According to a congressional report, the bolt was defective—one of a batch imported from Mexico or Spain—and had failed far below its presumed strength. "For a $1 bolt a man lost his life," says whistle-blower Tommy Grant. "Isn't a man's life worth more than a dollar?"

To Grant, 48, owner of a mom-and-pop Houston company that sells bolts, screws and other industrial fasteners, Davis' death was a preventable accident and further evidence that America is coming apart at the seams. "Integrity has crumbled," says Grant. "So now we're in a very dangerous situation." Since 1985, Grant has worked furiously to alert Americans to the threat of a new kind of disaster. Every year the U.S. uses more than 7 billion fasteners, in products from baby buggies to space shuttles. But in recent years, says Grant, inferior foreign fasteners, primarily Japanese, have flooded the market. "Cranes are falling and killing people," he says. "Wheels are coming off 18-wheelers and killing people. Bridges are coming apart."

At first Grant was viewed by politicians and industry leaders as a smalltime crank. But this summer, after an 18-month investigation, a congressional subcommittee chaired by Michigan Democrat John D. Dingell produced evidence that made Grant look like a prophet. "The millions—perhaps billions—of substandard fasteners make it a wonder we haven't yet had a major catastrophe," says Dingell. "Tommy Grant was instrumental in bringing this whole problem to the fore."

Grant, a native Texan who started his nut-and-bolt supply business in 1978, became aware of the problem of substandard fasteners during the early '80s, when dissatisfied customers complained some Japanese bolts and screws were "junk." He soon learned that U.S. manufacturing standards were not legally enforceable and that foreign suppliers were taking advantage of the situation to market inferior fasteners, underpricing their American competitors by 30 percent. He was shocked to discover, after expensive laboratory tests, that perhaps 30 percent of the fasteners in his own warehouse were dangerously defective.

Faced with huge losses if he refused to buy or sell any more of the bad bolts and screws, Grant thought of turning a blind eye to the problem. But he could not forget the advice of his late father, Jack, who had worked as a purchasing agent for a Corpus Christi chemical refinery. "He told me quality was more important than price," says Grant, "because without quality you might get a man killed."

Grant moved quickly to purge his inventory, then stirred a furor among thousands of other suppliers by going public with his safety concerns. "A lot of distributors were going along just to get along," he says. "But I remembered my dad, and I just couldn't do it."

In 1985 Grant began buttonholing congressmen and regulatory agency officials with evidence that Japanese manufacturers were saturating the U.S. market with counterfeit fasteners they did not sell in their own country. Impressed by Grant's persistence, Congressman Dingell called for a full-scale investigation that has produced a series of alarming conclusions:

•More than 30 million counterfeit fasteners in military warehouses will have to be discarded;

•1,200 of the Army's M-60 tanks had to be taken out of service for several months so that bogus bolts could be replaced;

•substandard fasteners may have been used in aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines and Trident missiles;

•bad fasteners have shown up in space shuttle equipment, and six NASA suppliers have been found to have inadequate quality controls;

•over a three-year period, 61 aviation accidents, mostly involving small planes, resulted from fastener failures;

•Peterbilt Trucks of Newark, Calif., recalled a fleet of freight vehicles when defective imported fasteners were found to cause steering mechanism failures;

•defective fasteners have been discovered in a new $150 million post office building in Los Angeles, the United Airlines Terminal at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport and a highway bridge in Lake Charles, La.;

•32,000 out of 67,000 bolts used in a nuclear power plant in Knoxville, Tenn., were defective.

As a key figure in the congressional investigation, Grant is encouraged that Reynolds Fasteners of Houston has already been assessed a $1 million dollar fine for smuggling defective fasteners from Japan and that other distributors are expected to be punished soon for knowingly selling mislabeled merchandise. Substandard fasteners are still pouring into the country but will be outlawed next year if a bill proposed by Representative Dingell is enacted. Still, Grant's efforts to make America safer have taken a personal toll. A decade ago his company had seven employees; now it is down to a staff of three, including Grant's wife, Ann, who helps out with the business.

Married 14 years ago, with two children each from previous marriages, the Grants now live alone in a modest tract house a few miles from their office. With Tommy off crusading much of the time, business isn't exactly booming. But the Grants say the satisfaction of having a clean conscience is compensation enough. "I want to see honor and integrity come back into business," says Tommy. "I want to see the day come back when a man can do a deal with a handshake."

—David Grogan, and Kent Demaret in Houston

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