DIGGING DEEPER: Dying on the Job

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FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WPTA21) – A machine that crushed to death a Fort Wayne woman had been altered and used in a manner deemed unsafe by the manufacturer that had overhauled the device, according to state investigators.

But the company that owned and operated the press is no longer in business, and an ABC21 Digging Deeper investigation uncovered the challenges faced by the families of those killed in industrial accidents in Indiana, including a limit on compensation they may receive even when a business is found to have acted in a negligent manner.

“She looks like she’s dead”

Shacarra Lashae Hogue was just 23 years old when she died, according to the Allen County Coroner’s Office, of “multiple crush-force injuries” on Jan. 7, 2018.

The manner of death was ruled accidental (editor’s note: the embedded news release misspells Hogue’s name and the name of the street where the plant was located).

Shacarra Hogue died in a workplace incident on Jan. 7, 2018

Frantic calls from coworkers to 911 just before 3:30 p.m. conveyed the extreme nature of what was unfolding at Fort Wayne Plastics, in the 500 block of Sumpter Drive.

“The mold closed on somebody in the press!” one caller, a shift supervisor, explained. “We just opened the press. She looks like she’s dead!”

Another 911 caller was asked what part of the victim appeared to be injured. His one word response: “Everything.”

The Investigation

Shacarra Hogue’s mother, Samantha Hogue-Figgs, said information in those first few hours was difficult to come by. Eventually, she would learn what happened. It was a devastating blow to a woman who told us her prayers had been answered all those years ago when she “asked God to send me a baby. I wanted a baby girl.”

Six days after the tragedy, she laid that baby girl to rest.

“You ask, ‘how does it feel to bury your own child?’ Since Jan. 7, a part of me is gone, too,” she said, speaking out for the first time about the loss of her daughter.

While the funeral marked the end of Shacarra’s life and closed a chapter for the family, state investigators were just getting started.

In Indiana, industrial fatalities are investigated by the Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration (IOSHA), whose primary mission is “ensuring Hoosier workplace safety and health.”

IOSHA sought — and got — answers within a matter of weeks. By February, it had concluded its review, finding Fort Wayne Plastics responsible for two “serious” violations of state safety codes, along with one “non-serious” violation.

The state agency assessed penalties totaling $17,100.

But an agreement between IOSHA and Fort Wayne Plastics dated March 15 reduced both the number of infractions and the penalty. Deleted from the findings: the “serious” safety violation noting that machinery was “not guarded to prevent employee(s) from having any part of their body in the danger zone(s)” during operation, and the non-serious violation regarding how the incident was reported.

IOSHA kept in place the finding of a single serious violation, noting “procedures were not developed, documented and utilized for the control of potentially hazardous energy when employees were engaged in activities” in the press mold area. As a result, “employees were exposed to crushing injuries.”

That $17,100 fine? It was reduced to $6,300 and the matter was settled.

Samantha Hogue-Figgs never heard from anyone.

“I never even received a condolence letter,” she said. “A condolence call.”

How it Happened

Over the course of several months, ABC21 followed the paper trail on the accident that killed Shacarra Hogue.

Among the findings: Fort Wayne Plastics had removed the machine’s “floor,” stripping away a metal barrier that was designed to keep workers from entering the machine during operation.

A German company called Windsor, which specializes in maintenance and overhaul of machinery in the plastics industry, had performed a refurbishment on the press when it was ready to be installed in Fort Wayne in 2009.

IOSHA sought information from Windsor as part of its investigation. In a written response to IOSHA questions, Windsor noted:

At the time Windsor completed its work on the press in 2009, there was a barrier made from perforated metal sheet present underneath the orange door (on the press). In fact, the openings on both the operator and non-operator side underneath the gate were completely closed in, as you can see in the attached drawings in “Exhibit A.” 

But on Jan. 7, that barrier was gone, allowing Shacarra to be inside the press when it crushed her.

Asked if operators were expected to enter the mold area to retrieve product, as Shacarra did, Windsor replied:

At Contico (a Missouri factory where the press was previously located), where Windsor conducted the refurbishing of the press, the parts were retrieved by conveyor belts. Only the area at the conveyor belt location (and the associated area for retrieval of parts) was free of the barrier.

Windsor said the guards were in place when it completed its refurbishment, which appears to be the last major overhaul for the press. Without modification, Windsor writes, it would not have been possible for workers to enter when the press was in operation.

Mark Smith is an attorney representing the Hogue family.

“This machine was designed and set up to kill people,” he stated emphatically. “You had to put a person on a step ladder into a machine that crushed her. She had to be inside the machine every time a product was retrieved.”

ABC21 Animation: How the press worked                   

Smith was allowed access to the site following the incident and took photos of the equipment. The photos confirm the absence of the floor and safety barrier.

He alleges that changes were made “because (Fort Wayne Plastics) wanted to make products cheaply.”

Digging Deeper

After several attempts to contact Fort Wayne Plastics we visited the plant itself — and found a gutted building, under construction and under new ownership. Fort Wayne Plastics was gone.

As for the machinery, we were told it had been sold to another plastics manufacturer, 20/20 Custom Molded Plastics, based in Ohio.

The CEO of that company told ABC21 that it had purchased some — but not all — of the equipment that once filled the Fort Wayne plant. He said the 750-metric ton press that killed Shacarra was not included in that transaction.

The new owner of the building said he understood some machinery was shipped to St. Louis, the home base of American Plastics, of which Fort Wayne Plastics was a subsidiary. A company that would evolve into American Plastics purchased the Fort Wayne operation in 2014.

American Plastics CEO Robert Guerra declined a request for an interview and would not say where the press is now. Nor would he address questions about safety protocols in place at the time of the incident or those enacted at its plants since.

A spokesperson emailed a statement reading:

We remain saddened by the tragic accident at our Fort Wayne, Ind., facility this past January, and our condolences are with Shacarra Hogue’s family and friends. We will continue to ensure that we have the right precautions in place to maintain a safe workplace for all of our employees.

Smith is dismayed by what he considers a “slap on the wrist” penalty for an egregious safety violation.

And that’s not the only reason he says the Hogue family hasn’t gotten justice.

In Indiana, workers’ compensation laws cap what survivors can receive when a relative dies on the job, regardless of the role the company played in that person’s death.

“If you die on the job with no heirs or dependents, you get $10,000 and that’s it,” Smith explains.

A parent, like Samantha Hogue-Figgs, cannot take the matter to court.

The rules vary greatly from state to state. In neighboring Illinois, for instance, family members could receive as much as $500,000 in a workplace death case.

“Something has to be done about this,” Hogue-Figgs said. “I don’t want any other mother, father, brother, nieces, nephews to go through what my family is going through.”

As for Fort Wayne Plastics… records show that on Nov. 29, “per its Chapter 11 liquidation filing,” it ceased to exist. It’s parent company, American Plastics, remains in operation.

ABC21 has been unable to determine the fate of the press that killed Shacarra.

Jonathan Shelley

Jonathan Shelley

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