GARY | New Indiana Department of Labor Commissioner Sean Keefer toured U.S. Steel Gary Works on Tuesday to see what the massive steel mill was doing to prevent on-the-job accidents.
Keefer, who had been deputy commissioner before taking charge in January, told U.S. Steel officials about how the state wants to promote a culture of workplace safety and how Gov. Mike Pence considers job creation a top priority. He's recently carried the same message to other workplaces, including a coal mine in southwest Indiana.
"It was an opportunity for us to meet with the leadership of U.S. Steel and learn about their industry," he said. "Steel is important not only for the community of Northwest Indiana, but also Indiana as a whole. The state was No. 1 in manufacturing industry jobs last month."
Manufacturing can be dangerous work, but it's safer than it used to be. The sector had 23,700 non-fatal injuries and illnesses in 2011, the most of any industry in the state, according to the Indiana Department of Labor's annual review. But that number has fallen more than 70 percent from 82,900 injuries in 1999.
About three of every 100 steelworkers suffered on-the-job injuries in 2011, compared to an average 5.2 per 100 workers in the broader manufacturing industry.
Molten steel, huge steel beams and other hazards at the steel mills haven't posed as much of a risk to workers as they once did, Keefer said. Non-fatal accidents have fallen over the last decade. The Indiana steel industry reported 3.6 injuries per 100 workers in 2010, or less than half the rate of accidents in the state's concrete, brick and copper rolling industries.
U.S. Steel Gary Works has engineered many of the pitfalls out of the production process, Keefer said. The company also promotes a culture of safety, such as by having a family safety day where steelworkers can bring their spouses and children.
"U.S. Steel does a phenomenal job with safety, and it's been trending that way for some period of time," he said.
The Indiana Department of Labor long has focused on safety in factories, but is making a push to broaden its outreach more to other industries.
Major initiatives include focusing on workplace safety in transportation, agriculture and health care, Keefer said. Transportation-related accidents now account for about half the fatalities in the workplace, while agriculture has the highest percentage of injuries and health care has become the second-biggest employer in the state, after manufacturing.
The Department of Labor will work with big employers and trade groups to teach best practices and offer safety training at no charge.
"Safety culture goes from the bottom to the top," Keefer said. "It isn't just at any one level, but should be system-wide. We need to be clear that trying to be safe in the workplace should be rewarded. Everyone has a key responsibility to make a workplace a safe environment, and everyone shares in that responsibility."