Union local mourns 392 steelworkers who have died on the job in East Chicago

NWI Times

While mournful bagpipe music warbled, family members laid down flowers to mourn lost loved ones at Workers Memorial Day in Hammond.

United Steelworkers Local 1010, which represents steelworkers at ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor East Chicago, paid tribute Thursday to the 392 colleagues who have died on the job there since the former Inland Steel mill opened in 1902.

USW Local 1010 President Steve Wagner lamented the loss earlier this month of Edwin Fleming, a 49-year-old Schererville man, who was killed earlier this month in a railcar accident at the steel mill in Indiana Harbor on Lake Michigan. Wagner knew Fleming from work and also from the Franciscan Health Fitness Centers Schererville, where they both worked out every morning before starting their shifts.

"We have to renew our efforts to put safety first in everything we do," Wagner said. "We need to make sure every steelworker returns home at the end of a shift. We never want to add another name to that wall."

The union honored the dead with a series of speeches and the flower-laying ceremony, but discontinued its practice of releasing one balloon for every fallen steelworker after people raised concerns about the impact on the environment.

Mark Lopez, chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Gary, said steelmaking is dangerous but vital work.

"The people in this room know the risks associated with the steelmaking process, and you also know how your work helps drive our regional economy, benefits our local communities, and is vital to our national security," Lopez said. "Our national security is strengthened due to your work. Our military armaments, including our tanks, aircraft carriers and planes, all require steel, and our nation is safer due to the USW and domestic steel manufacturers."

The American steel industry helps ensure national security, which helps people feel safe.

"It only stands to reason that the individuals who make steel should feel safe in their person as well," Lopez said. "Today is a reminder that everyone should be safe in their working environment. As we honor those who lost their lives on the job, let us recommit to do the job safe or do not do the job, and to always be cautious and have a watchful eye for your co-workers."

State Rep. Lisa Beck, the ranking minority member of the Labor and Pensions Committee in the Indiana House of Representatives, said more progress needed to be made to ensure worker safety and to treat workers fairly.

This session, state lawmakers increased the Worker's Compensation death benefit from $7,500 to $10,000, Beck said.

"We originally were asking for $25,000," she said. "We still have work to do."

The state legislature also increased the penalty for a knowing workplace safety violation that results in a fatality from $70,000 to more than $130,000, which arose from an accident at Fort Wayne Plastics.

"A 23-year-old woman, only three days on the job, was placed on a killing machine," she said. "The safeguards had been removed, and the floor of the machine was removed. The woman had to get inside the machine in order to operate it. This machine normally took three weeks of training before operating it. A co-worker, unaware that this woman was inside the machine, pressed the button to operate the machine. She was killed instantly."

The company was fined only $6,300 for her death.

"It is not surprising that Fort Wayne Plastics dissolved and no longer exists," Beck said. "We believe the machinery is in a factory in St. Louis. We have asked that the US OSHA look into whether this machinery is still in use in the same condition."

United Steelworkers District 7 Director Mike Millsap requested stiffer penalties to deter companies from putting their workers into unsafe conditions.

"We have requested a summer study session to look into the current IOSHA penalties," Beck said. "We will continue to work to enact legislation that helps keep employees safe. We must not allow companies to put profit over people. We will work to ensure that no new names appear on the memorial wall."