CHICAGO — ONE of the most dangerous workplaces in the United States may well be a pizza delivery truck. Just ask Domino's Pizza Inc. Last year, the Ann Arbor, Mich., pizza chain's drivers were involved in a reported 20 fatalities. The company now says the actual total is less than that, but it won't give out the number on the advice of lawyers.
Whatever the final total, safety experts are incredulous that it's so large.
``That's high,'' says James Kaletta, director of the National Safety Council's consulting services group.
Federal Express, which also has a time-sensitive guarantee, has had only two fatalities in several years, says company spokesman Armand Schneider.
Comparisons are difficult. Federal Express has some 20,000 full-time drivers who make overnight deliveries, while Domino's has 75,000 to 80,000 part-time drivers, often in high school or college, who have 30 minutes to deliver pizzas after they are baked.
Still, the Domino's fatality rate is uncommonly high, says Joseph Kinney, executive director of the National Safe Workplace Institute. He estimates that with the equivalent of 20,000 full-time drivers, Domino's had twice the fatality rate of agriculture, which in 1987 was the nation's most dangerous occupation with 49 fatalities per 100,000 workers.
It's ``the tip of the iceberg of a bigger issue: ... the role of teen-age workers in the fast-food industry,'' Mr. Kinney says. Statistics show that 70 percent of all teenagers will work this year, and two out of three will work in the fast-food industry, he adds, yet inspections of these restaurants are a low priority for federal and state inspectors.
``More and more kids are getting their start in this industry - and that's fine,'' Kinney says. But parents, children, and safety experts ought to begin a dialogue to ensure the experience is positive, he says.
For the moment, though, the focus is squarely on Domino's, particularly its 30-minute guarantee. Customers are refunded $3 if their pizza is not delivered within 30 minutes of their order.
The company defends the practice.
``The speed of our system is in the store,'' says Domino spokesman Ron Hingst. Ideally, a pizza should be ready to leave the store 8 1/2 minutes after it was ordered, leaving the driver 21 1/2 minutes to drive within the one- to two-mile service area. If the pizza is not ready to go within 25 minutes, it is automatically marked late, Mr. Hingst says.
But a number of safety experts, lawyers, and others say the guarantee is dangerous.
``Domino's is saying: `We don't condone unsafe driving.' But the reality is that many drivers will take the guarantee as an incentive ... to speed,'' says Brian O'Neill, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
When a Pittsburgh woman was seriously injured by a Domino's pizza truck in 1985, her attorney decided to sue Domino's instead of the young driver.
``I don't think it was the kid's fault,'' says the attorney, Kenneth Behrend. ``He was just trying to be a good employee.'' Mr. Behrend says he knows of more than 60 legal cases arising from accidents involving Domino's drivers.
Earlier this month, about 1,300 people signed a petition urging federal action against the guarantee after an Indianapolis 17-year-old, Jesse Colson, died when he struck a utility pole while delivering Domino's pizzas. Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, who received the petition, is urging state and local action, according to a spokesman. The Indiana Department of Labor is investigating whether to issue the company a labor-safety citation.
The reaction of Domino's to the spate of bad publicity stands in sharp contrast to other corporations. At one large health-care products firm on the East Coast, the company completely changed its system in the face of similar problems, says the safety council's Mr. Kaletta. ``They had one [fatality] and said: `Enough, we are going to solve this problem.'''
Domino's is changing its driver-safety system but has not made it mandatory for the two-thirds of its 5,000 stores that are franchises, nor has it abandoned its guarantee. ``We do believe in our system,'' Hingst says. The guarantee was introduced 2 1/2 years ago, he says.
``They shot first and thought about it later,'' says a former headquarters employee about the company's management style. Had the president of her subsidiary driven 80 miles an hour toward a tree, his management team would have followed right behind, she says.