Worker fatalities are a major concern for companies and trade groups in the raw materials, metals recycling, production, distribution and fabrication industries, which are placing great emphasis on boosting safety even in a down economy. And although the metals sector's track record has improved in the past year, there is still room for further progress.
There were 1,156 recordable safety incidents at U.S. steel plants last year, down nearly 38 percent from 1,861 accidents in 2008, according to a "safety incident report" issued by the Steel Manufacturers Association, Washington. The SMA report shows just two fatalities at member companies in 2009, down from seven the previous year; taking into account contractor fatalities at members' operations, the SMA pegged the 2008 figure at 12.
By AMM's unofficial count, the 2008 death toll was at least 25, with 19 workers killed in steel or steel-related plants in North America and at least six others killed in accidents at upstream or downstream steel operations.
And while the number of steel industry deaths was greatly diminished last year, it should be noted that the number of hours worked in 2009 was down almost 23 percent to 72.4 million man hours due to the recession, according to the SMA.
A total of five fatalities have occurred in steel and related industries so far this year.
In an effort to conserve costs, most steel companies cut capital expenditures drastically in 2009, but they didn't skimp on safety initiatives.
Accidents happen nonetheless.
A worker at Follansbee, W.Va.-based coal producer Mountain State Carbon LLC died Feb. 20 when a large chunk of ice fell on him from a coal conveyor. A spokeswoman for parent company Severstal North America Inc., Dearborn, Mich., said the employee was wearing a hard hat at the time.
At Evraz Inc. North America's Portland, Ore., steel plant, a worker died on Jan. 7 after being crushed by a 5-foot-tall stack of steel as he worked in the plate heat-treat complex.
A Beta Steel Corp. worker died of blunt force trauma following a January explosion at the company's Portage, Ind., plant. The accident, which resulted in the brief hospitalization of other employees for treatment of burns, occurred in the melt shop, where molten steel erupted at the electric-arc furnace. The accident followed a similar incident at Beta two months earlier where four workers were injured—none fatally—when slag spilled in the melt shop.
Even processors and durable goods manufacturers have accidents involving metal products. A worker at Galland Henning Nopak Inc., a Milwaukee company that produces cylinders, valves and steel recycling equipment, was killed Feb. 16 when he was struck by a 2-ton piece of steel that fell from an overhead hoist he was using to move the steel into the shop. And a worker died in early February from severe burns suffered in a chemical accident at the Schofield, Wis., plant of Quality Steel Processing, which uses chemicals to powder coat materials, strip paint and clean investment castings.
Outside of steel-related industries, a construction company worker was fatally injured at Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc.'s Miami copper mine in Arizona earlier this year while he was moving some pipe, and a maintenance technician at Celina Aluminum Precision Technology Inc., which melts, cases and machines aluminum in Celina, Ohio, died Feb. 21 after he became tangled in machinery.
Apart from the loss of valuable employees due to injuries and deaths, companies face censure, fines and lawsuits stemming from workplace accidents, even when they're practicing safety according to national standards.
Steel Dynamics Inc. (SDI) in January was named in a wrongful-death lawsuit by the widow of a contractor who died in an accident outside the company's slag processing operation in Indiana. The woman alleged the Fort Wayne, Ind.-based steelmaker was negligent in connection with the April 2009 death of her husband, a contractor at the Columbia City Mill Services division of Edw. C. Levy Co. He died after being struck by a slag-hauling vehicle on land leased by Levy Co. adjacent to SDI's Structural and Rail division in Columbia City, Ind.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which conducts safety inspections and accident investigations, has cited several steel companies and recyclers for violations over the past few months.
Scrap recycler Yaffe Cos. recently settled with OSHA on a penalty over a fatality at its Oklahoma yard last November when a shell in a bundle of military scrap exploded. The settlement agreement stated that Yaffe no longer buys ammunition scrap. Meanwhile, the worker's family filed a civil lawsuit in Oklahoma state court seeking to hold Yaffe liable for the accident; the company in turn sued the Defense Department over the man's death, claiming it sold dangerous scrap as being inert.
ArcelorMittal USA, Chicago, was fined $12,250 by Indiana OSHA last September for four "serious" safety violations after it investigated the July death of a steelworker at its Indiana Harbor East facility in East Chicago, Ind. The steelworker, who died after being struck by a crane at the No. 4 slab yard of the 80-inch hot-strip mill, walked in front of the crane because the authorized walkway was blocked by a fire hydrant, the state OSHA report said.
In Canada, Essar Steel Algoma Inc. faces five counts of alleged safety violations and unsafe working conditions that the Ontario Ministry of Labour said contributed to an October 2008 accident in which a worker died after being struck by a 250-pound piece of iron. If the provincial government agency finds Essar Steel Algoma liable, the company faces a maximum penalty of Canadian $500,000 ($485,000) on each of the five charges.
The United Steelworkers union's director and assistant director of safety declined to return calls seeking comment on the organization's safety initiatives or statistics.
A spokesman in the union's Washington office said, however, that the USW, which will host a national job safety conference this year, operates workplace safety and training centers, has an emergency response program for serious industrial accidents and conducts its own investigations into accidents at facilities where its members work. CORINNA PETRY