Jeffersonville factory death not a surprise to ex-employee also injured at plant
JEFFERSONVILLE, IN (WAVE) - It was a normal night at work for Melissa Stephens, a supervisor at a Jeffersonville factory, Autoneum.
But on Oct. 21, just before midnight, Jeffersonville Police got a call regarding a horrific accident at the factory, involving one of its late-night supervisors.
Stephens had been caught in a machine, pulled in by its fast-rotating parts. There was no chance of saving her life.
Jeffersonville's Case Report describes her injuries to include blunt force trauma, fractures and amputation.
"I told several people, someone is going to end up being killed on this machine and unfortunately it, it happened," Kasi Ballew told WAVE 3 News in an exclusive interview.
The news of Stephens' death jolted her.
It was about one year ago, while Ballew was nine-months pregnant, that the same machine's metal rollers clamped down on her fingers, slowly reeling her hand in, crushing her bones in the process.
"The thing that was going through my mind was just let the baby survive," Ballew said.
She remembers a co-worker pressing several of the emergency stop buttons -- scrambling to find one that worked.
"Had my back up not found one that worked, it would have completely crushed my skull," she said.
She was later told three of the four emergency stops weren't even wired in.
"I witnessed many, many unsafe things," Ballew's fiance and former Autoneum employee, Adam Whittenburg told WAVE 3 News.
Whittenburg quit around the same time she did. He was trained on the same machine by Melissa Stephens, the woman who was later killed in it.
He says he was one of several who didn't feel safe working there.
"There was a lot of people that weren't trained properly on the machines," Whittenburg said. "Then there's a lot of other things, like guards not being in place or people just bypassing these guards."
Despite those concerns, and even Ballew's injury, Indiana's OSHA had never investigated the Jeffersonville factory.
That's because under Indiana law only a death, or injuries more serious than Ballew's like an amputation, the loss of an eye or those requiring in-patient hospitalization have to be reported immediately.
After Stephens died, the state investigated, and fined the company $224,000. WAVE 3 News has now learned those fines where settled down to $14,000 after discussions between Autoneum and I-OSHA. The Department of Labor told us, "the company was able to show they were vigilant about enforcing their policies and agreed to modifications to enhance safety."
But her family may have little recourse.
Indiana law prohibits people from suing their employer after an injury, even if there was a death or if the company was at fault. It's called the Workers Comp Exclusivity Remedy. It allows for medical bills and lost wages to be covered regardless of fault in a quicker time frame, but there's almost no chance to sue for punitive damages.
Autoneum is a global auto parts company based in Switzerland.
In a written response to our questions, they told us employee safety is top priority.
They also told us they've disputed some of I-OSHA's charges in Stephen's death and they've made no admission of wrongdoing.
The company also launched an internal investigation.
"It's sad, because I worked with her and she was a good lady and was good at her job," Whittenburg said.
Ballew's baby is now a healthy boy. While she continues therapy for her hand, she's warning others still working at the factory to speak up.
"I understand people need jobs and families to take care of and stuff, but at the end of the day is it really worth your life?" Ballew said.
The day after Stephens died, WAVE 3 News started looking into the company's history. We found the company faced numerous OSHA violations before at its other plants - 33 in the past four years alone, none in the Jeffersonville plant.
In 2017, the company was fined nearly $600,000 after a worker lost an arm in a shredder in Ohio. OSHA also reported the shredder did not have a proper guard to avoid injury. OSHA stated three of the violations were willful, meaning the company was aware of the problem.
The current state law does not allow for employees to sue their employers for workplace injuries, even if they are fatal or if the company is found to have been negligent or at fault. The company must have been found to act with an actual intent to cause an injury.
The Workers Comp Exclusivity Remedy, part of the Indiana Workers Compensation Act, allows for employees to get quick compensation such as medical treatment, or lost wages without having to prove whether the company was at fault.
Some attorneys aim for a third party, such as the manufacturer of a machine, if a machine was deemed to have been the problem.
Autoneum is based in Switzerland and has 11 factories in the United States. The company makes auto parts. The Jeffersonville facility manufactures parts for General Motors and Ford.
Autoneum has a large global footprint. They have facilities in 15 different countries including China, Mexico, Turkey and Brazil.
The Jeffersonville plant opened in 2015. It sits on 23 acres in the River Ridge Commerce Center. The facility is about 300,000 square feet. Jobs pay about $40,000 a year.
In a previous statement after Stephen's death, the company told about Stephens' death:
"We are deeply affected by this accident and our thoughts go out to the family of our colleague. In light of this accident at the Autoneum plant in Jeffersonville, Indiana, we have immediately started an internal investigation and closely cooperate with the authorities. As a globally producing company, Autoneum complies with occupational health and safety regulations at all locations worldwide and is committed to the highest local and international standards in this area. Our health and safety management system is a framework integrating international and national laws and regulations and the requirements of the international Occupational Health and Safety Management System OHSAS 18001. All our production staff is regularly trained on occupational risks and hazards. This includes the correct operating of machinery and equipment. In North America, we run the SafeStart training program aiming explicitly at production staff. The focus of this training program are the key types of at-risk behavior and the core elements of safe behavior that decisively influence safety in production. Autoneum North America is in close cooperation with OSHA in the resolution of pending cases which also includes the incident you are referring to."
On the company's website, they encourage employees to report issues. They provide an email to their legal compliance team at firstname.lastname@example.org.
They also have a "Speak Up" line where reports can be made anonymously at speakupline.autoneum.com.
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