A ringing phone shattered the stillness sometime after 1 a.m., jarring Kelsey Stitt from her sleep. Kelsey knew calls at that hour rarely brought good news, and her first groggy thought focused on husband Kenny’s grandmother, who was 92 and in ill health. Kelsey answered. On the line was Kenny’s cousin Carrie.
“Kenny’s hurt really bad at work,” Carrie said. She seemed alarmed but didn’t have any details. Kelsey ended the call and quickly checked her phone — she saw a number of Facebook messages from her husband’s co-workers at the NLMK steel mill in Farrell, Mercer County. The messages urged her to immediately call the union president.
She did. The president didn’t speak, which alarmed her, but a vice president urged her, “Get to the hospital right away.” She tried asking what had happened, but he just repeated, “Get to the hospital.”
Kelsey needed someone to help with her children, son Kenny III, 2 months old, and daughter Kambree, 2.
Within several minutes, Carrie showed up at the Stitts’ house in West Middlesex, Mercer County. Another relative arrived to stay with Kambree. Carrie and Kelsey, carrying Kenny III, hopped in a car and drove to Sharon Regional Hospital. On the way, Kelsey kept telling herself, “It can’t be too bad — they didn’t life flight Kenny to a trauma center.”
At the hospital, Kelsey ran to the front desk and told a receptionist, “My husband is here.” She was told to take a seat, so she did and for several minutes remained there with her thoughts while Carrie held the baby. Then a hospital employee approached Kelsey and led her to a hospital conference room. When the door opened, Kelsey saw Kenny’s mother, Mabel Stitt Stainbrook.
“He’s gone, he’s gone,” Mabel cried. The two embraced. A coroner approached Kelsey and handed over her husband’s lunch box and phone.
So began what Kelsey says was the longest day of her life: Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021.
Every year on April 28, recognized by the labor movement as Workers Memorial Day, bells toll in Pittsburgh for workers killed on the job the previous 12 months. Two Downtown events marked the occasion this year. Several representatives from labor and local government, as well as faith leaders, gathered at Market Square at 11:30 a.m. to remember the six who died at work in Allegheny and Fayette counties, and to stress the health and safety of workers. This event was organized by the Allegheny/Fayette Central Labor Council.
A United Steelworkers remembrance began at 9:30 a.m. at the USW headquarters at 60 Blvd. of the Allies, Downtown. There, a bell sounded for each of the 26 workers killed at USW-represented workplaces in the U.S. and Canada from April 25, 2022, to April 11 of this year. Kelsey Stitt told Kenny’s story at that event. She says she appreciates the opportunity.
“Ever since Ken was killed I’ve been fearful that people would eventually forget him,” Kelsey said. “So it’s been really important for me to make sure everyone knows what an amazing person he was to our family and kids.”
Kelsey met Kenny at her father’s Agway store in Hermitage, Mercer County, where they were both employees. “He was good-looking and tall,” she said. In high school, she wasn’t interested in dating her classmates, and she wasn’t very social. It was easier for her to talk with Kenny at work.
“He’s always been a kind and nice person,” she said. “But when we got married his true personality started to come out, and I realized how amazing he was, very patient and kind. We never fought. He’s always been like that. He didn’t like confrontation. He wanted to love and live his life.”
An investigation by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration said Kenny, 32, died after being struck by a crane load at 1:10 a.m.
At first, his death didn’t seem real to Kelsey. Everything had been so normal in the hours before the accident that took his life. She’d said goodbye to him when he left for work at 10 p.m. on Oct. 11. When he arrived safely at the mill, he sent Kelsey a text message, as he always did. “Here I am,” it read.
“In the beginning I thought I was going to die without him,” she said. “He did everything that I asked of him, he took care of everything. I work full time, but I’m a typical housewife. He was the main breadwinner. The few first moments after finding out about his death, I was asking, ‘How can I keep the house? How can I feed the kids? How can I afford any of this stuff?’”
Since then, members of her community and the United Steelworkers Union have reached out and provided financial and other forms of assistance. Members of USW Local 1016 “have helped me and made me feel like I’ll never be alone,” Kelsey said. “If I need to, I can reach out to them and they’ll be there in one second.”
Kelsey started a Facebook page, Love Like Kenny, where she posts memories and pictures of her husband and writes updates on the children’s lives. The pictures reflect Kenny’s upbeat personality. He smiles, plays with his young children, strikes a proud pose with his arm around Kelsey. Kelsey said no one could stay grumpy around Kenny.
One image shows Kenny with daughter Kambree when she was 3 months old. Kambree’s smile beams. “I miss seeing him walk through the front door,” Kelsey wrote. “I miss hearing Kambree scream ‘DADA’ when she saw him come around the corner.”
Such posts are important because they show Kenny as a complete person, someone who took great pride in his work and who loved his family.
“I want the people from the mill who knew Kenny to stay in touch with me and my kids, to see the other half of his life,” Kelsey said. “It keeps his memory alive and keeps us all connected.”
In addition to honoring those who have died at work, this year’s memorial events focused on workers’ mental health, and the health and safety challenges faced by workers from minority and underrepresented groups. It’s a way of broadening the discussion of workplace safety.
Mental health has long been a concern, but it has received more attention the past few years because of COVID-19.
“Many people experienced their first bout with a mental health challenge during the pandemic,” said Julie Frischkorn, a licensed clinical social worker who’s the keynote speaker at the Market Square event. “Nobody could escape it.”
Parents were multitasking, working from home, taking care of kids and dealing with losses — often the loss of a job and perhaps even of loved ones.
“We’re seeing the mental health implications of the pandemic now in ways we didn’t see them then,” she said. “We pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps, and now that the world is opening up again, people are saying, ‘There are all these things I was holding together for so long, and now I’m struggling.’”
Both unions and companies are becoming more aware of the importance of mental health and making certain resources are available to help those needing care.
Studies show that 1 in 4 people are experiencing some sort of mental health challenge, Frischkorn said, and if left untreated those challenges can have catastrophic consequences. Suicides and overdose deaths are few examples.
“It’s not just about getting help for ourselves but supporting our co-workers, family members and friends,” she said. “We know people are more likely to get help if someone close to them suggests it. Sometimes it’s just a matter of saying, ‘I’m concerned about you, I want you to get the help you need.’”
Minority stress — high stress faced by people in stigmatized minority groups — is a “real thing” that can cause serious health issues, said Chelsey Engel, a board member of Pride at Work Pennsylvania, an AFL-CIO affiliate representing LGBTQ+ union members. She’ll be speaking at the USW event.
Studies show that 1 in 5 members of the LGBTQ+ community face workplace harassment, Engel said. Workers in the queer community may be forced to endure verbal abuse from homophobic co-workers and bosses, they can be spit on, punched. These experiences affect both the mind and body and can lead to issues such as chronic pain, headaches, sleeplessness, an increase in autoimmune disorders, depression and even self harm.
Even those who don’t face harassment can find themselves dealing with workplace stress.
“I started working on the staff for United Steelworkers 11 years ago,” said Engel, who identifies as queer. “I was closeted. And even though I knew it was a progressive work environment, I didn’t know how my co-workers were going to react when I came out. Once they all caught on I felt so much better. I had a number of chronic health issues — my stomach was always a mess — and after I came out those issues stopped. I know I’m not alone in that.“
Engel noted that members of the LGBTQ+ community suffer higher rates of serious illnesses such as cancer. This is especially true for workers who identify as trans or nonbinary and who, fearing embarrassment or harassment, are uncomfortable seeking a doctor’s care. Thus, health issues remain undiagnosed for longer periods and develop into more advanced and serious illnesses.
Another issue is the affordability of health care. Many members of the LGBTQ+ community work in low-wage industries such as retail and food service, which often fail to provide affordable health care.
Labor organizers are now not only thinking about health and safety concerns more broadly but are also including the voices and concerns of subsets of workers who can sometimes be invisible, said Sabrina Liu, president of the Pittsburgh Chapter of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, another speaker at the USW event.
Immigrant workers are especially vulnerable in many workplace environments, Liu noted.
“A lot of restaurant workers are undocumented,” she said. This often results in a massive power imbalance. Workers sometimes live in housing owned by the restaurant owner, get paid less than their co-workers and can more easily fall victim to abuses. They don’t speak up on issues such as health and safety because they don’t know the rights granted to them in the U.S.
And since undocumented workers can’t possess a driver’s license, they cannot legally drive to work. This creates additional stress on workers already facing a number of challenges. “They risk deportation every time they drive to work, to school, to the grocery store, when they’re seeking health care,” Liu said. “Being able to access a driver’s license should be common sense policy. It creates a strong incentive to learn the rules of the road, maintain auto insurance and have a valid identification.”
Liu is part of the effort urging unions and employers to think of health and safety in more universal terms, to include workers many people don’t see and issues often overlooked.
“Unions should be thinking about the well-being of the worker as a whole person, and that covers lot of different aspects,” she said. “You’re not healthy if you can’t be you. It can affect everything from work-life balance to stress, burnout and fatigue.”
The state House is considering several several pieces of legislation to protect workers, including the Jake Schwab Worker Safety Bill (HB 299), which would give public sector workers the same kind of protections that OSHA gives private sector workers. It’s named for an Erie transit mechanic who died on the job in 2014.