Caterpillar worker���s grisly foundry death blamed on training and work conditions




Just nine days into his new job at Caterpillar’s foundry in Mapleton, Illinois, Steven Dierkes, a 39-year-old father of three, fell into an 11ft-deep pot of molten iron and was incinerated.

Now workers at the plant are blaming lack of training, poor safety protections and grueling working conditions for his death and are threatening strike action at the world’s largest construction equipment manufacturer.

Dierkes’ death in June was the subject of a report issued by the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Osha) earlier this month. The report determined that “​​if required safety guards or fall protection had been installed, the 39-year-old employee’s ninth day on the job might not have been their last”.

Osha said workers at Caterpillar’s foundry were “routinely exposed” to unprotected fall hazards and has proposed a fine of $145,027. The decision does not go far enough for Jessica Sutter, Dierkes’ fiancee.

“My children are left without their father, I am left without my fiancee, my partner, my best friend, all because they didn’t want to take better safety precautions for that type of work,” Sutter, who had two daughters with Dierkes, said.

She claimed Caterpillar has not provided any assistance or support to her and her daughters. She is now trying to find additional work to save enough money to find a new place to live with her children because her landlord won’t conduct needed repairs on her home. She said they were already suffering financially because Dierkes had been out of work for two months before starting at Caterpillar.

Sutter criticized Caterpillar for putting her fiance in a dangerous position without adequate safety protections.

“As far as Caterpillar, I feel that they are murderers. It’s a slaughterhouse. No one should have to lose their life like this,” she said. “They do not have any compassion for human decency at all, they are a company of no humanity.”

Former and current workers at the foundry also raised concerns about safety. One former employee at the Mapleton foundry, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation from prospective employers, quit in late 2021 due to unsafe working conditions.

“You breathe in smoke and dust six, seven days a week,” the former employee said. “There was a lack of concern whenever we brought up a safety issue there. Most of the time it was overlooked or their fix created a whole new safety issue or multiple issues.”

A current employee at the foundry, who also requested anonymity for fear of retaliation, explained in detail the working conditions and lack of safety protections that contributed to Dierkes’ death. Over 800 workers are employed at the foundry.

The foundry is divided by into two sides by “the wall”, a term used by workers to characterize the separation of environments and job types. Machining takes place on one side of the wall, and iron melting on the other side.

Dierkes was working as a melt deck operator and fell into a melter while trying to obtain a sample.

“When he died they only had us off work for two days and then told everyone to come back. The air literally still smelled like his burning body,” a worker said. “There were no guard rails, no harness procedures and nothing to ensure you wouldn’t fall into the massive holes filled with iron. As he was collecting a sample of iron with the spoon, he fell in and churned up.”

“I’m very surprised this is the first time it’s ever happened. When I worked up there, there were numerous times I thought, ‘Man, are they really gonna have me do this?’ For instance, if the iron level was low, they wanted you to try to get a sample or temp anyways, which would require you to lean over the hole a bit to be able to reach the iron. The melters are always around 2,400-2,600F, so if you fall in one there is zero chance of survival.”

The worker also claimed the process of tapping out the iron was dangerous, the cranes used to haul the iron also posed safety risks, and there were significant risks of getting burned by backsplash while working in excessive heat.

“In the summer the melt deck reaches upward of 120F. You’re expected to be in full long sleeves to protect you from the iron, but the fire-resistant clothing you wear doesn’t protect from anything – the iron burns right through it,” the worker added.

“It’s hard to breathe because of the heat, and you’re always drenched in sweat. They have heat advisory days in the summer where security passes out bottles of water. But it doesn’t really matter how much water you drink up there, you’re losing so much sweat you almost always feel cruddy when leaving work and your ears and nose are filled with black soot every single day, and that obviously gets in your lungs.”

The worker also claimed that Caterpillar had not done anything for Dierkes’ family and that co-workers had tried to raise money for the family themselves after the incident. They noted that the money Osha has proposed to fine Caterpillar for the safety violations won’t go to Dierkes’ family.

Another worker, 50-year-old contractor Scott Adams, fell to his death at the foundry in 2021. Osha blamed the contractors he was working for on Caterpillar’s premises for failing to protect him from the fall.

In 2020, the latest year of available data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4,764 workers in the US suffered fatal injuries in the workplace. But the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the US, says that number severely undercounts the real problem because of the lack of funding for regulatory oversight.

Workers at the foundry are represented by the United Auto Workers, and the employee claimed that workers are now being asked to train their replacements in anticipation of a possible strike in March 2023, when the current union contract expires.

Caterpillar declined to comment on Dierkes’ or Adams’ deaths or on workers’ claims they are being asked to train possible replacements.

A spokesperson for Caterpillar said in an email: “We continue to be deeply saddened by the death of an employee who was involved in a serious incident at our Mapleton, Illinois, facility on June 2. Our thoughts remain with this employee’s family, friends and colleagues. The safety of our employees, contractors and visitors is our top priority at all Caterpillar locations around the world. Regarding the serious safety incident that occurred, we will continue to engage with Osha to seek an appropriate resolution to its review.”