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DIGGING DEEPER: Dying on the Job – ‘I’ve requested a bill’

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WPTA21) – A state lawmaker will introduce legislation addressing issues raised this month by an ABC21 Digging Deeper investigative series examining workplace safety issues, penalties for serious infractions and limits on what families of those killed on the job can recover.

The reaction follows reports that focused on the death of 23-year-old Shacarra Hogue in January. Hogue died when her employer, Fort Wayne Plastics, stripped away safety features from an industrial press.

“She was inside the machine, as she was directed to be, when her coworker turned the press on,” said Mark Smith, an attorney for Hogue’s mother.

But because current law prohibits non-dependent relatives from suing, there was little Smith could do for the family.

The Digging Deeper investigative team reviewed every safety order issued by the state in the past six months — detailing how little Fort Wayne sand other companies have paid for serious and repeated code violations. The reports also showed that Indiana has the highest per-worker rate of deaths in the Great Lakes region.

But that would change if State Rep. Martin Carbaugh can shepherd through reforms in the upcoming legislative session.

“I’ve requested a bill,” Carbaugh (R-Fort Wayne) said in a sit-down interview this week. “We’ll be filing here in first part of January a change to our worker’s comp law.

“Your story was very moving to me,” Carbaugh continued. “I had no idea what you found out about the safety removal of the floor of the machine. So that really hit me, hit me in the heart, and also made me pretty frustrated.”

Frustrated — he says — at the state’s cap on death benefits under its worker’s compensation statute.

“Ten thousand dollars is just way too low,” says Carbaugh. “Even if all we’re trying to do is cover a funeral. That’s barely going to cover it most of the time.”

That’s not all.

Our investigation found that nearly 50 percent of the time, IOSHA — the state’s workplace safety enforcement agency — knocks down safety violation penalties for bad-behaving companies, even though those penalties are already below national standards.

IOSHA told ABC21 it does so only when companies make certain commitments to improve training or conditions at the workplace, but officials would not agree to discuss the practice in an interview.

“I think a lot of what your story brought out is that we probably need to do a comprehensive review of things like that in IOSHA,” said Carbaugh. “Most companies I know of make safety number one. But for those that would skirt that issue, I think we need to have a little bit of a stronger penalty to be encouraged to do the right thing.”

It appears Carbaugh will have allies in the state legislature.

State Sen. Liz Brown (R-Fort Wayne) says she will “absolutely” support changes to the state’s worker’s comp statute, giving the proposal a foothold in the upper chamber, as well.

“I am a parent,” says Brown. “I can’t imagine how devastating it would be to have your child go to work and not come home. The loss is incalculable.”

Brown says if Carbaugh clears the bill through the Indiana House of Representatives, she’ll push it through the State Senate.

“I don’t see that as being difficult,” says Brown. “When you have the House Insurance Committee Chairman on board, that’s a really good step in terms of getting legislation passed.”

It’s an effort to make meaningful changes to Indiana law – an effort labor advocates say is long overdue for workers literally “dying on the job” – but one that may have easily gone unnoticed, before our Digging Deeper investigation.

“Quite frankly,” says Brown, “if you hadn’t brought it to our attention, we might not be aware that we haven’t made changes in some time.”

“We don’t want to make Indiana all of sudden not business-friendly,” says Carbaugh. “But at the same time workers matter just as much. And worker safety has to be our top priority.”

The Indiana Chamber of Commerce, while noting that it believes most companies act responsibly regarding worker safety, has signaled an interest in “thoughtful, reasonable” legislation.

ABC21 will be closely following the development of Carbaugh’s bill through the legislature in the coming months.

Alexis Shear

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