Steel Mill Workers’ Risk of Injury on the Job: Equipment, Working Conditions


Steel Mill Workers’ Risk of Injury on the Job: Equipment, Working Conditions

Steel mills in Indiana and Illinois are filled with workers who have a special expertise in dealing with the process of taking iron and carbon and manufacturing steel. The contributions of steel mill workers to our country cannot be underestimated: without them, we would not have steel to build bridges, or to make cars, or to construct office buildings, hospitals, or schools.

Respect for the steel mill worker can only increase when their working environment is considered: while steel mill workers operate in a variety of jobs, they are all at risk of serious injury or even death as they operate in a work site filled with dangers.

Types of Jobs in a Steel Mill

While most discussions of steel mill workers don’t bother to differentiate between their various specialties, these workers actually have different skill sets depending upon the work that they do. Most of their tasks place them in harm’s way. Alongside these craftsmen are supervisors and foremen, who share the risks of being hurt on the job in these dangerous environments.

Here are a just a few of the areas of specifically skilled work needed in a steel mill here in Indiana and Illinois:

1. Boilermakers

Boilermakers fabricate, assemble, install, dismantle, build, and repair boilers, and other large containers that hold liquids and gases, as well as piping systems. Boilermakers also produce steel fabrications from plates and sections which are used in structural and plate work. They can work from great heights, and their working conditions are usually with high risk.

2. Welders

Welders in a steel mill are expert at welding, brazing, and otherwise working with hot, molten metal using either hand-held tools or computerized equipment. Welders join metal products together using hot metal as well as make repairs, etc., in metal production equipment and in steel mill products. They may work from great heights, as well as in confined areas.

3. Machinists

Machinists work with all kinds of machines and machine parts and tools that are needed in the assembly of the steel mill’s products. Today, machinists are also adept at working with computerized technology as well as manually operated or mechanism-controlled tools and machinery.

4. Millwrights

Millwrights work in specific areas of the steel mill, checking all the equipment assigned to that location. Millwrights will also repair, adjust, and replace the mechanical equipment in their assigned area as needed.

5. Pipefitters

Pipefitters not only lay out pipelines in the steel mill facilities, they also maintain and repair the facility’s pipelines as well as its fixtures, fittings, etc. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “[pipefitters] have one of the highest rates of injuries and illnesses of all occupations.”

Dangers of Steel Mills

Consider the following dangers that steel mill workers in Indiana and Illinois face (this is not a complete list of their on-the-job risks):

1. Cancer from Exposure to Asbestos

What most members of the steel industry do not like to discuss is the reality that for many steel mill workers who have been dedicated to the jobs in American steel mills over the past decades, they have a high risk of asbestos poisoning or mesothelioma.

This is because asbestos was used in steel mills from the 1940s to the 1970s as insulation material, and steel mill workers were exposed to the toxin either by touching it in the course of their work, or by inhaling its fumes during the course of a work day. If the steel mill has not been cleared of all asbestos material today, the danger of mesothelioma still presents itself to mill workers (although federal regulations are on the books protecting workers against exposure to asbestos and requiring its removal from the job site).

However, that’s far from the only danger that exists for those who work in a steel mill.

2. Legacy Equipment Accidents

While advances in technology exist that can be implemented in steel mills and make things safer for steel mill workers, the cost of buying the new technology and then installing it may be seen as cost-prohibitive by the corporate number-crunchers. It may seem the better choice is to keep things going with the current equipment and machinery because that won’t cost money.

This results in workers being left in environments that are not as safe as they could be, because making things safer would mean less profit for the steel company. It also means that “legacy” equipment is being used by steel mill workers. This is old stuff, which might still work but is consider obsolete or discontinued.

Being forced to work with older, dated equipment is inviting injuries to steel mill workers. This is true not only because of the age of the equipment, but the chance that it has been recalled, retrofitted, or otherwise altered by its manufacturer but the plant has not kept up with the product changes.

3. Work Accidents

The steel mill is a dangerous place by definition. Its purpose is to take and refine things like iron and carbon to create a metal that can be fabricated. Steel-making needs furnaces and fire to do this: high temperatures are integral to form steel. After the steel is created, then it has to be produced into products. Casts are used as a general rule: liquid, molten steel poured into molds.

The entire process invites all sorts of injuries and fatalities, from serious burns to inhaling fumes to being cut or struck by industrial equipment and machinery. While safety and health regulations exist to protect workers from these kinds of harm, the danger is ever-present.

And today, as Indiana and Illinois face a steel industry that is cutting back on things to deal with economic pressures, there is a real urgency in protecting steel mill workers from harm on the job. Safety often takes a back seat in companies where profits are endangered.

Our warning: steel mill workers in Indiana and Illinois need to be extra careful as they work — and watch out for their fellow steel mill workers, as well — because right now, economic conditions suggest that they may be in more danger on the job than ever before. Be careful out there!

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