It's hard for people not in the steel industry to think a person can get used to spending more than eight hours a day near 3,000-degree molten iron or welding a piece of machinery that is more than 100 feet in the air.
Workers try to focus on doing their jobs, even though in years past, department mates and friends didn't make it home after a shift, or they returned with severe burns or lost limbs.
"This isn't just, you come to your job and get a paycheck," said John Gelon, trainer and secretary for the United Steelworkers Local 1010 safety committee at ArcelorMittal. "If you take this as just a job, you'll get people hurt or killed. ... You gotta have some passion."
Workers, safety regulators and steel company officials say while progress needs to continue the industry is doing a lot better at keeping people safe.
Illness and injury rates for Indiana iron and steel mills fell to 2.5 cases per 100 workers in 2008, a year-over-year decrease for the third consecutive year, according to data from the Indiana Department of Labor. The rate is down 67 percent from 1996.
Since 2000, there have been five deaths on the east side of ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor. By contrast, records kept by USW Local 1010 show 47 people died between 1903 and 1913 at the East Chicago complex, then called Inland Steel.
Officials from Northwest Indiana's two largest steel industry employers -- ArcelorMittal and United States Steel Corp. -- tout safety performance as part of their business strategy and promote the goal of zero injuries or fatalities in their facilities worldwide.
In 2009, U.S. Steel's rate of the number of days workers missed because of injury fell 60 percent from 2005.
"U.S. Steel has had safety as its highest priority throughout the history of the company, with the term 'Safety First' being coined by U.S. Steel in the early 1900s," company spokeswoman Courtney Boone said in a statement. "In early 2005, safety became the company's primary core value and business driver."
U.S. Steel's remaining tenets are: all injuries and incidents can be prevented; safety is a personal responsibility and management is accountable for results; employee engagement and training is essential; hazardous exposures can be eliminated or safeguarded; and preventing incidents and injuries is the right thing to do and is good business.
Steve Thompson, manager of health and safety compliance at ArcelorMittal USA, said in a statement that the health and safety of the company's work force is "our highest priority and is integral to achieving our vision of safe, sustainable steel.
"More than a statement, this is a global mindset that is captured in our Journey to Zero initiative to create a culture of zero accidents. While ArcelorMittal USA realized a slight improvement in health and safety in 2009, we are committed to helping the company reduce our global injury rate by 20 percent in 2010."
'Production was king'
For decades, steelworkers have comprised the backbone of Northwest Indiana's economy, and workers often accepted certain risks while working.
Tom Hargrove, president of USW Local 1010, which represents employees at ArcelorMittal facilities in East Chicago and Riverdale, Ill., said steelworkers negotiated in the 1950s for a concept called "safety relief," in which workers had the right to refuse a job if they deemed it unsafe. Generally, the company would send a worker home, and both parties would have to wait for an arbitrator's decision on whether a worker would be entitled to money lost and avoid discipline.
But someone else usually was willing to do the work, Hargrove said. This meant the problem could go unresolved, and it affirmed that maintaining a certain operating level was addressed with more vigor than investigating worker concerns. Things are much different now compared to the "production was king" atmosphere fostered in years past, he said.
"The union and the company are totally in agreement that we don't want people to take risks," Hargrove said. "We want people to eliminate hazards, and (you) don't do anybody a favor by doing something unsafe. We can always make more steel, but we can't make another you."
Forty years ago, some workers said, the company losing money on equipment shutdowns was seen as worse than employees taking shortcuts while operating equipment or not wearing protective garments. Former USW Local 1011 Safety Chairman Carl Spurrier said in the early 1970s when No. 2 blooming mill at Youngstown Sheet & Tube, now part of ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor, went down for regularly scheduled maintenance, workers were told the outage was costing the company $600 a minute as a way to compel faster work.
"In '73, my God, there was always (pressure to) get this thing running," said Spurrier, who retired from the chairman position last year. "There were absolutely no safety procedures."
Current and retired steelworkers in Northwest Indiana said new production and environmental-control technologies and federal workplace safety regulations have been touted as drivers for improved performance.
One major development that helped usher in new rules and safe operating standards was the enactment of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, which created the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Gary Anderson, area director of OSHA's Calumet City office, said he was hired at the agency in 1974 as an industrial hygienist and spent a lot of time in the 1970s and '80s conducting steel mill audits and investigations. He said energy-control procedures such as lockout/tagout – the concept of shutting off and placing a lock on the energy source to equipment prior to restarting it – and developing hazard communication programs have saved lives.
Although OSHA helped define safe job procedures, in its infancy, the steel industry and others likened the agency to an "industrial gestapo" bent on punishing businesses, Anderson said. Over time, the steel industry, which traditionally was reactive, started addressing safety in a more proactive manner and realized the economic benefit to improving safety performance.
"It used to be, safety was top-down," Anderson said. "The employees were told to wear greens, you wear your hardhat, that's what it is. There was no attempt to get employees to buy into safety.
"That has changed. There have been so many advances in safety-management programs, the need for employee buy-in and partnership in safety. It's essential to safety working in a mill -- and in any facility."
The result is that union personnel and companies see themselves as partners in addressing workplace safety issues.
Improvements in workers' personal protective equipment has helped save lives, said Susie Ramsay, USW Local 1014 safety coordinator and U.S. Steel Gary Works employee. The evolution of "greens" or "oranges," which refer to the colors of the flame-retardant suits worn in extreme-heat areas such as near blast furnaces or hot-strip mills, has reduced burn injuries, she said.
Requirements for employees to wear hearing protection in certain production areas and to have their hearing tested periodically also were established to reduce hearing impairment and other related injuries, OSHA's Anderson said.
As safety equipment continues to evolve, the next step is making clothing and other items more user-friendly, said Arthur Newburn, USW Local 1014 safety chairman and vice president.
Ramsay is excited because she is helping advise a clothing manufacturer to produce safety shoes that women can wear more easily. Over the years, women in steel mills have had to wear uncomfortable and over-sized clothing and gloves because the designs usually were created with men in mind.
Paul Gipson, president of USW Local 6787, at ArcelorMittal Burns Harbor, said steelworkers now are alerted to the health hazards they may face working in certain mill environments. Gipson said one example is that workers near coke-oven batteries, which process coal into coke, are educated on the dangers of inhaling byproduct gas emissions from the equipment.
Also different from years past is that steel companies provide protective equipment such as safety glasses, face shields and respirators at no cost to the employee.
"They (companies) have to provide the equipment, but you have to do education, too," Gipson said. "Once they understand the health hazards working in an environment, they wear it."
Few would argue about the dangers inherent in working at a steel mill. But attitudes started to change once people began accepting that more precautions could be taken even while working near molten metal, overhead cranes and railcars, said Spurrier, Local 1011's former safety chairman.
Spurrier said in 1994, the shops department, which had about 600 people, averaged more than 40 accidents each month. But a new manager started working with the department and declared that number of accidents unacceptable. More than five years later, the department had about 30 accidents for an entire year.
"It's gotta be as much of the business process as quality," said Hargrove, of USW Local 1010, at ArcelorMittal. "If something isn't right with quality, we shut down. That's what we ought to do in safety. Shut down, stop, before the bad thing happens."
Hargrove said it's sometimes difficult for a younger worker to challenge a seasoned veteran about how a job needs to be done. He said the attitude needs to continue to shift away from "we've always done it this way."
"We need to convince this person that what he's doing is wrong, because all he's gonna do is teach the next one to do it wrong," Hargrove said.
Recalling his experience, Spurrier said some of the conflict happens because older workers knew what it was like to work under different conditions, when danger was simply acknowledged as part of the job.
"But what did you teach me and these guys in 1973?" Spurrier asked. "If you wanna lock something out, you're pulling safety (stuff), you're a (jerk). You're trying not to do the job. That's what you taught us in '73. Now you pop up here 25 years later (and say), 'You know all that (stuff), forget all that. Now a good employee does this.' That's hard."
Reflecting on her experience working on safety issues, Ramsay, USW Local 1014 safety chairman at U.S. Steel, wishes the union had made more attempts earlier on to engage employees and better orient them to concepts and practices that are commonplace today.
"I think we should've started educating our people sooner," Ramsay said. "You have to remember, safety engineers, management, they're all educated. They went to school for all of this. We're steelworkers, self-taught."
U.S. Steel and ArcelorMittal officials said they have improved accident investigations by trying to pinpoint the root cause of each incident to attempt to prevent future mishaps.
Local 1014's Newburn and Ramsay began to serve on what they believe is the first full-time safety committee representing workers at Gary Works, after it was negotiated through collective bargaining nearly 20 years ago. Newburn and Ramsay, who each have worked more than 30 years for the company, said employees and the union are glad to have a more active role in planning for safety and investigating accidents.
Today, 10 full-time union employees are dedicated to plant safety at Gary Works and at least 25 employees from different departments -- steel, iron, coke and operating services -- are involved part-time with safety planning, Newburn said.
A joint union-management team meets monthly to discuss issues within the U.S. Steel plant, including whether safety goals are being met, and the plant safety manager meets weekly with the union to discuss safety matters.
Two years ago, ArcelorMittal and unions representing workers in the U.S. and around the world formed a union-management global health and safety committee. The group's aim is to discuss and implement plans to improve safety performance and adopt best practices in ArcelorMittal's plants worldwide.
Rob Johnston, director of the steel department at the Geneva, Switzerland-based International Metalworkers' Federation, was one of the committee members who visited the company's Northwest Indiana facilities in late April. Johnston said in tours of many steel facilities around the U.S., he noticed that many are older and could be upgraded to be on a par with newer facilities in other parts of the world.
"I think the U.S. is in a fairly good place, but most of the plants here would benefit from significant investment," said Johnston, of the federation that represents more than 25 million union workers in more than 100 countries.
Maintaining infrastructure is key to any safety program, said Local 1010's Gelon, who works at ArcelorMittal. Employees and the company have to regularly invest in fixing machinery and equipment to support operations. He likened it to a person owning a 100-year-old house and dealing with all the issues that would ensure things in the house worked properly.
"We have invested heavily in our operations when it comes to safety," U.S. Steel said in a statement. "That investment includes annual and periodic training of our represented, nonrepresented employees and our management team. We have also invested heavily in terms of tools and equipment, personal protective equipment, as well as the housekeeping and orderliness of our operations."
Harsh new realities
Former USW Local 1014 President Mike Mitchell admitted convincing employees that the union and company management were interested in their safety wasn't easy. Mitchell, who started working at U.S. Steel in 1975 and served as union president from 2004 to 2006, said this task was especially difficult in light of employee ranks having been cut by more than half from 25 years ago.
Since starting at the mill, manpower requirements for crews in certain departments have been progressively reduced, Mitchell said. In 2004, U.S. Steel and the United Steelworkers agreed to reduce the number of job categories in the Gary plant to five from 34.
He recalls that both these measures -- plus large amounts of overtime to cover production goals -- contributed to a rash of injuries in the mid-2000s. He said many people also were working "in certain situations that were unfamiliar to them."
As a result of the spate of injuries, Mitchell recalls the Pittsburgh-based company bringing corporate officials to meet with steelworkers in Merrillville for a two-day conference in 2004 seeking advice on how to make the mill safer.
"We're competing against companies that are not United States companies, that don't have any safety rules," Mitchell said. "And sometimes, in order to stay competitive with those companies, maybe we're not following the rules we should and ... have the correct manpower."
Although current employee counts at ArcelorMittal, U.S. Steel and other facilities are a fraction of what they were 25 years ago, the amount of production per employee is much higher than it was during that time.
U.S. Steel said it adjusts production across all its operations to stay in line with customer demand and ensure that demand is met "safely and efficiently."
Remembering the fallen
The Dec. 28, 1979, accident at East Chicago's Jones & Laughlin Steel Co. is one many current and retired workers said they would never forget. Six men died of asphyxiation after they were overcome by a carbon monoxide leak near a blast furnace at the mill -- formerly Youngstown Sheet & Tube and currently part of ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor.
OSHA's Anderson said it was one of the worst tragedies he's seen in his career.
"It really polarized the whole community," Anderson said. "It was so devastating when the facts came. One was attempting to rescue another. The time of the year, all these things came together. It stuck in a lot of people's minds."
Steel processes such as cokemaking are carbon intensive, and the odorless, colorless carbon monoxide gas is a byproduct of operations. That fateful day, an equipment failure led to gas escaping into the blast furnace area. An employee who went to investigate was overcome. Other employees attempted to rescue the fallen, but they became victims as well.
Anderson said the lessons learned were that the plant needed better carbon monoxide detectors, continuous air-quality monitoring, alarms signifying changes in the air, and better emergency respirators.
Steelworkers haven't forgotten these and other trials employees before them faced and have erected memorials either on union or company property honoring the men and women who died in mill accidents.
Reinforcing the fact that making steel is still dangerous, 45 consecutive months is the longest period without a name being added to a list of 388 who have died at the more than 100-year-old mill now owned by ArcelorMittal. A third-generation steelworker, Gelon said one of the proudest moments in his 32-year career there was seeing the memorial wall inside the East Chicago union hall being built. His grandfather's name occupies a spot on the wall after being killed in 1946 at the same mill where Gelon now works.
"My job is to keep battling through all the roadblocks to make sure jobs are safe, and we don't have to add another name to this wall," Gelon said at an April 30 steelworkers memorial celebration at the union hall.
One suggestion Local 1014's Mitchell, of U.S. Steel, offered is for older generations of steelworkers to pass on institutional knowledge about safety to younger workers. The goal is to make sure they are aware of past struggles and know more than just how to operate machinery.
But with all the pressure on employees to perform, will they have the opportunity to do it?
"That's a good question," Mitchell said.