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USW mourns steelworker deaths: 'No amount of steel is worth your life'
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USW mourns steelworker deaths: 'No amount of steel is worth your life'


Mark Bernal teared up before he went to lay a single rose on a ceremonial pile of wreaths to honor his late brother Joseph Bernal, who died in a steel mill accident in the 1980s.

"I tried not to get all misty-eyed," he said. "But it's been 34 years, and the pain doesn't go away. The only thing I can say is be vigilant and make sure your coworkers go home. It's the best thing you can do, to be vigilant."

Mournful family members laid roses atop the wreaths while a string duet played an instrumental version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" at the United Steelworkers Local 1010 Workers' Memorial Day ceremony in Hammond's Hessville neighborhood Thursday. The union released 391 balloons, one to commemorate every steelworker who has died at ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor, including Willie Batteast and Alfredo Cadena, who were killed in accidents last year.

"We're here to honor 391 fallen sisters and brothers," USW 1010 President-Elect Steve Wagner said. "Nothing is more important than brothers and sisters continuing to work in a safe workplace. We all need to ensure the workplace is as safe as possible. If a job isn't safe, we don't do it." 

Workers Memorial Day coincided with ArcelorMittal's 12th annual Health and Safety Day, in which the company carved out time for steelworkers to undergo safety training at its facilities in Northwest Indiana, New Carlisle and Riverdale. The steelmaker, one of Northwest Indiana's largest employers, said it has reduced its lost-time injury frequency rate to 0.78 incidents per million hours worked in 2017, down from 3.1 incidents per million hours worked in 2007.

Working to improve safety

The Luxembourg-based steelmaker, which has steelmaking and mining operations worldwide, has been focusing on preventing fatalities, such as through pre-shift safety meetings, shop floor audits, on-site pre-job risk analyses and better risk reporting. 

“Working safely is a matter of choice — one we make every time we act, at every level in the company," ArcelorMittal Chairman and CEO Lakshmi Mittal said. "As such, it is imperative we choose the safest way in everything we do. Our data shows us that the operations which take risk reporting most seriously tend to be fatality-free. They are also half as likely to have accidents resulting in lost time, or restricted work injuries. The first step in all our planning should be to spot and mitigate risks before accidents happen."

In March 2017, Batteast became the first USW Local 1010 member to die on the job in seven years, the longest stretch without a fatality in the union chapter's history, when he succumbed to injuries he suffered in a crane accident. In December, Cadena died in a buggy accident at the No. 3 Continuous Annealing Line at AcelorMittal Indiana Harbor in East Chicago.

"We had two fatalities last year, and that's the ultimate failure," ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor General Manager and Vice President Wendell Carter said. "We failed the deceased and their families. We had two of the 23 the company lost last year. Normally, we don't have any."

Three-way communication before boarding and deboarding a crane could have prevented Batteast's death, Carter said. Though there are several videos of the incident, it isn't clear what caused the accident that killed Cadena, which shows that safety plans don't recognize all the hazards, he said.

"We're working on ways for improvement," he said. "We're giving people stop work cards today, because safety is everybody's responsibility. A stop work card is a tool, but also a reminder that we're responsible for my safety and the safety of our fellow employees."

Stay vigilant

USW Local 1010 Safety Chairman Don Jones said that though health and safety progress has been made, fatalities don't need to happen at the steel mill. The union and steelmaker look at what happened during accidents or near misses and try to correct deficiencies to keep the same mishaps from happening again.

He urged constant vigilance on the job.

"Be aware of any changes in conditions and hazards they may create," he said. "Keep an eye on new hires and transfers. Make sure nothing happens to them. Make the job safe, or we don't do it." 

Indiana Harbor Health and Safety Manager Bill Emery recalls starting his career in the caster and coming across a grizzled veteran — a big, husky guy — who wasn't wearing a hard hat. Emery asked if he had a hard hat. He asked "Who are you?" before going to retrieve the required safety equipment.

"Why does it matter who I am?" Emery said. "I'm trying to help you out. Did I save his life at the mill that day? Probably not. But it's better to have difficult conversations now than much harder conversations later on."

Janice Pinkins said it meant a lot that her late husband, Daniel Spencer, was not forgotten by his colleagues. He died in a hot strip mill accident in November of 2005.

"I worry my husband has been forgotten, but am happy he's still on your mind," he said. "This presentation lets me know he did not die in vain, that you are still working to improve safety on the job."


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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.

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