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Safety from the Top Down: The Top Five Steelmaking Hazards, the PPE That Works, and the Bottom Line

Safety from the Top Down: The Top Five Steelmaking Hazards, the PPE That Works, and the Bottom Line
By Andrew Mitchell

"Every person in our plant, everywhere in the facility, must practice top-down safety: wearing a hard hat, safety eyewear and steel metatarsal shoes . at a minimum, every day," says R.E. Whipple, Senior Safety Engineer at Bethlehem Steel's Burns Harbor Division in Indiana. "Among all our goals, the number one priority is to provide a safe workplace for employees."

Whipple's outlook on worker safety reflects the commitment of other large integrated steelmakers-backed for the most part by both union and management. Proactive attitudes toward safety are not surprising when you add up the hazards found in steel mills: molten metal, extreme heat, powerful and dangerous machinery, toxic chemicals, strenuous physical activity . and, often, thousands of people in several buildings. What could be a recipe for disaster-in human terms but also financially-most often isn't. Productive, safe workdays can be the norm when facilities are committed to safety engineering, training, proper personal protective equipment (PPE) and, of course, solving compliance issues.

The Top Five Hazards

Large steelmaking facilities can be in many ways like small towns, often several square miles in area, with the need for the same safety services you would find in a town. Some plants have their own fire and police departments, search and rescue teams and HAZMAT equipment. Yet after these companies engineer out as many hazards as possible and train, train, train, the following are still the top five daily hazards that plant managers must address and the PPE solutions that safeguard those who face them.

Hazard 1. Lacerations caused by sharp edges in various processes/machinery. The PPE: cut-resistant gloves and armguards, including metal mesh, leather and Kevlar�. Gloves can be customized with such innovations as extra palm pads, aluminized patches, and extra-long cuffs.

Hazard 2. Molten metals/high heat. The PPE: aluminized clothing, heat-and flame-resistant underwear, "cool" vests, welder's high heat gloves, welding face shields with clear or gold reflective material to conduct radiant energy away from eyes and face, hard hats, and steel-metatarsal shoes with Kevlar� stitching.

Hazard 3. Power and electrical equipment causing burn and electric shock. The PPE: Flame-resistant (lineman's)clothing, rubber and leather gloves, and protective footwear with Kevlar stitching.

Hazard 4. Toxic fumes from gases and chemicals used in processes (e.g., carbon monoxide, benzene, etc.). The PPE: respirators, meters for checking air quality. Respirators must be cleaned daily and all meters and equipment must be kept in good repair.

Hazard 5. Heavy lifting of more than 50 lbs., causing sprains and strains. PPE: Back belts, training in proper lifting techniques, mechanical assistance such as powered pallet trucks.

Further Safety Issues

Other hazards in steel plants can cause slips and falls, fall from heights (some cranes in steelmaking facilities can be 80 feet tall), and dangers to eyes. Slips, trips and falls account for 15 to 20 percent of all workers' compensation costs; the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 303,800 workplace fall injuries in 2000.

Then, facility managers must be responsible for protecting the constant flow of daily visitors, who often face the same hazards some workers face. All must be protected with hard hats, safety eyewear, steel-toe footwear and, often, flame-resistant jackets.

The Statistics

Making safety a priority is a facility manager's best economic decision. Preventing injuries in the first place with the proper use of PPE is an effective method of controlling the high costs associated with injuries. But despite the best efforts made by industry, worker compliance remains a problem. Just look at the injury statistics.

In 1999, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, reported 1,702,470 private industry occupational injuries causing lost workdays and 5,488 workplace injuries leading to fatalities. In the primary metals industry, approximately 500,000 workers each year are exposed to hazards requiring PPE, with the annualized cost to that industry of more than $831,000 for basic compliance with OSHA regulations. (Industrial Safety and Occupational Health Markets, 1999.)

According to OSHA estimates:
- Each avoided occupational fatality saves $910,000
- Each prevented injury or illness resulting in time away from work saves $28,000
- Each serious injury or illness avoided saves $7,000

Costs include estimated wage losses, medical expenses, administrative and employer costs per worker, plus environmental and repair costs, for a total cost to all of American industry of $125.1 billion in 1998, escalating to $131.2 billion in 2000. (National Safety Council, 1998). Protective equipment could have prevented a significant number of these accidents and saved American businesses these devastating costs.

Of course, the cost of putting safety first, at all costs, is high. Not every steelmaker wants-or can afford-to provide "top of the line" PPE. And although the use of safety equipment is mandated by OSHA 1910, Subpart I, 1910.132(a), about half of all workers don't comply.

PPE Can Save Their Lives - Why Don't They Comply?

According to OSHA, injuries happen because workers don't use their PPE. A survey by Future Technology Surveys, Inc. showed that half of all workers issued respiratory, hand, arm and foot protection don't wear it. Only 30% wear their protective headwear and just 40% wear their eye and face protection. Why?

The number one reason is comfort . or, rather, lack of it. Huge buildings such as steel mills are rarely climate-controlled, so they're hot in summer and cold in winter. Especially in summer, flame-resistant clothing and insulated underwear that are designed to protect the wearer from excessive heat can also be too hot to wear. (Or too bulky, too stiff, too restrictive, etc.) The top of the coke oven battery can reach 105-110 degrees F. The area around blast furnaces is cruelly hot. Yet in order to perform their jobs safely and confidently, workers in these areas must wear flame- and heat-resistant clothing, protective gloves, headwear and eyewear. The facility can address this by providing "cool vests" with pockets for ice packs or cooled by circulating cool water. Cool air respirators can be provided, and many other solutions are as close as the facility's expert safety equipment suppliers.

Occasionally, existing safety equipment doesn't quite fill the bill for a certain application so workers simply don't bother to wear it. In such cases, steelmakers can work closely with their safety suppliers to customize existing equipment (shelf items) to serve their particular needs. Examples of customizing include adding an aluminized patch to the back of clothing, incorporating extra palm pads on gloves, etc.

Although most steelworkers who wear PPE aren't concerned whether FR green flatters their skin tones, some younger male workers do exhibit the "macho factor." Their attitude might be construed as "When you look good, you feel good." Luckily for them, safety eyewear makers, for example, are increasingly style-conscious, borrowing cutting-edge sunglass styling to make protective eyewear that looks just as good tooling around town as it does in the mill. And steel-toe footwear that looks similar to hiking or sport boots would get the nod from many wearers. Employees recognize and appreciate the additional investment by management in their comfort. Finally, the more comfortable-and better-looking-protection is more likely to stay on, thereby reducing workplace accidents.

Planned Safety Programs and Training

Building a safety program to combat the types of hazards found in steel mills takes dedication and cooperation among management, safety directors and safety suppliers. Bethlehem Steel's ultimate goal is " . to provide a safe workplace for employees. So strong is this commitment, shared by both union and management, that a safety and environmental health leadership committee . works full time in planning, developing, communicating and implementing safety and health programs."

And what about offering rewards and incentives for safe behavior and compliance? Such programs absolutely help raise safety awareness, says Whipple. But he stresses that facilities can't rely on incentives to change behavior. Regular safety audits performed by PPE experts, followed by remedial training, help ensure that dangerous attitudes and behaviors have really been eliminated or controlled. "You have to make employees want to comply . to be safe, not just to be rewarded," he says.

Safety training in the use and care of PPE is not only mandated by OSHA, it's the right thing to do. Continuous training in most steel mills helps reduce potentially life-changing injuries and also tames the high costs of injuries and illnesses. A further way to prevent accidents and control costs is to implement a program of equipment maintenance, including cleaning respirators daily and making sure machinery is in top working order to prevent injury-causing malfunctions.

The cost of PPE can significantly affect a facility's bottom line, but its effectiveness at preventing injuries is the most important consideration. Because most managers wouldn't want to take chances with their employees' safety, it makes sense for them to ask their PPE distributor to suggest comparable quality equipment at a lower cost. Additionally, a safety audit by a PPE expert evaluates actual equipment usage and can reveal opportunities for achieving economies of scale.

Toward the Future

Steelmaking remains a high-risk industry as far as safety, but because so many steel companies are working toward zero tolerance of injuries, safety records are constantly improving - to the point where one Ohio facility last year achieved the goal of working over 11 million hours with zero lost-time injuries.

The steel industry's efforts to prevent traumatic injuries must be driven by top management's commitment to safety . through the purchase of personal protective equipment appropriate to the application; through training and education; and through careful allocation of resources to the most cost-effective management of their safety programs. Innovations like on-site, supplier-managed safety stores can handle the ordering and dispensing of safety equipment and perform personal service functions, such as safety equipment fitting, prescription eyewear ordering and respirator fit testing.

When you make safety a top priority-when you integrate it into the fabric of every working day-employees experience a sense of being "taken care of" at work. Workers who know that management takes safety seriously perform their jobs with confidence. Productivity increases and so does morale. The bottom line shows the benefits.

Andrew Mitchell is the Vice President of Sales & Marketing for Safety Today's Protective Products Group, Columbus, Ohio. Safety Today provides personal protective equipment and safety-related services to industrial customers as well as safety resources and supplies to the foodservice industry. For a FREE Safety Audit or information about On-Site Safety Centers, call 800-837-5900.
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