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Work in Northwest Indiana's steel mills, factories and refineries has always been dangerous. Through the years, workers have been crushed, pinned, electrocuted and blown up.

But Region workplaces — even the most heavily industrialized — have been getting safer, with fewer injuries and fatalities, organizations representing workers say. Advances in technology, increased automation and safety initiatives, such as empowering any worker to halt production at a mill over safety concerns, have made it more likely workers will return home at the end of a shift.

"I think it's really much safer and continues to get safer," said Tom Hargrove, president of United Steelworkers Local 1010. "But we can't rest as long as we have fatalities. Bad things can happen very quickly."

Indiana had a record low 3.8 injuries per 100 workers in 2015, the most recent data available, according to the Indiana Department of Labor. A total of 115 workers died on the job in 2015, down from a high of 190 in 1997.

The World Steel Association reports the injury rate per 1 million hours worked in steelmaking, the job the Region is best known for, has fallen to 1.39 in 2014 from 4.81 in 2004, a 71 percent decline.

"Safety has been a major concern of unions — and in particular the USW — in Northwest Indiana," said Mike Olszanski, a retired steelworker and labor historian.

"Initially, unsafe conditions often caused direct shop floor on-the-job actions by union workers, up to and including refusal to do unsafe work and shutdown of unsafe operations until they were made safe to the satisfaction of those doing the work."

Olszanski said later USW contracts included a provision that allowed individual workers to refuse to do work they believed was unsafe, without fear of being disciplined.

Safety movement

USW helped pass the Occupational Safety & Health Act of 1970 and worked to eliminate environmental hazards from the workplace, including exposure to carcinogenic emissions from coke ovens, Olszanski said.

"Local 1010 and District 31 created the first environmental committees in basic steel in the early 1970s, linking worker health with public health in Northwest Indiana by going after coke oven and other hazard emissions in contract negotiations, as well as through OSHA and Environmental Protection Agency enforcement," he said. "Local 1010 went to court circa 1980 to force the EPA to enforce Coke Oven Emission regulations against Inland Steel. I, along with our attorney, represented Local 1010 in court."

Once resistant to anything that slowed output, steel companies now tout their safety records. ArcelorMittal, one of Northwest Indiana's largest employers with more than 10,000 workers in the Region and metropolitan Chicago and 220,000 workers worldwide, says its Journey to Zero initiative aims to eliminate all workplace accidents and facilities.

"ArcelorMittal is committed to meeting all health and safety standards, but we cannot stop there," said Steve Thompson, director of health and safety at ArcelorMittal USA. "That is why we are committed to our Journey to Zero campaign, with the aim of becoming the world’s safest steel and mining company."

He said overall injury rates at ArcelorMittal USA continue to improve with a 25 percent improvement this year over last and a 57 percent improvement in the last decade.

"But we can never become complacent, which is why we have increased the number of required audits and observations at the shop-floor level, bringing together management and workers to discuss safety protocols and ways to improve them," Thompson said. 

ArcelorMittal USA's Joint Safety Group brings together management and union workers several times a year for in-depth looks at how to make its facilities safer. The steelmaker's Health and Safety working team also convenes six times a year to review the company's safety progress.

The Luxembourg-based steelmaker reduced its companywide lost-time injury frequency rate to 0.82 per million hours worked in 2016, down from 0.85 percent in 2014. Fatalities, which included a semitrailer driver who died in a crash at ArcelorMittal Burns Harbor, fell to 17 worldwide last year, down from 23 in 2014.

"Safety used to be just a slogan. Nobody really meant it. It was only if it didn't interfere with the production," said Hargrove, whose union local recently went a record 75 straight months without a fatality.

"But things changed for the better. A lot changed when (Lakshmi) Mittal bought the old Inland mill. I think he is sincere with his commitment to safety, to reducing injury and fatalities. With ArcelorMittal, there's a full commitment to safety down the ladder."

Every day, steel workers start by going over the job they are supposed to do and all the safety procedures they're supposed to follow, Hargrove said. 

"Little mistakes can be serious," he said. "The most important thing we can do is make sure we all come home."

U.S. Steel had two electrocutions at Gary Works in 2016, but reports its total OSHA recordable incident rate of 0.94 per million hours work, which was 73 percent better than the Bureau of Labor Statistics rate of 3.50 for iron and steel companies. The Pittsburgh-based steelmaker's Days Away From Work Rate was 0.15 percent, which was 85 percent better than the Bureau of Labor Statistics rate.

Safety a priority

Local steelworker Terry Steagall said much has changed since he started working in the mills, including federal mandates where companies must tell workers about the chemicals they're exposed to while on the job.

"The old guys worked with cleaning solvents that they thought was bathwater," he said. "They didn't think nothing of it. But without rubber gloves, you absorb harmful chemicals that affect your kidneys, liver, blood, everything."

Steel mills have had many safety hazards, such as acid eating through the roof, or molten steel flying like shrapnel out of basic oxygen furnaces. 

"You have mechanical, electrical, hydraulics and pneumatics at a mill," he said. "There's a lot of stored energy. When you think things are shut down, maybe a (mechanical) arm comes down with a roll of steel that could smash you."

Perhaps the biggest change is that steelworkers now can speak up about safety issues without threat of reprisal, Steagall said.

"The bosses would say you were insubordinate and send you home," he said. "The difference now is management isn't confrontational. They recognized accidents in the mill cost them money."

Now, operations get locked down when someone raises a safety concern until it's established that it's safe to proceed.

Unions also negotiated so they would have joint safety committees with management that look at different aspects of work, including how products are handled. As a result, mills no longer suffer five or six deaths a year the way they did 40 years ago, Steagall said.

"The company used to fight the union over everything safety-related," Steagall said. "But everything changed when they found out cutting out accidents saved them money. They realized it wasn't a good practice, killing people. Those at the top said, 'I want to be the king of steel,' not 'I want to be the king of death.' "

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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.