Standing on top of the sun. That's what Sue Walker compares to working in a steel mill, and she should know. Walker is the safety and health coordinator at Crucible Specialty Metals Division, Syracuse, N.Y., and she walks around a steel mill every day.
Not only is rolling stainless steel hot work, said Walker, but it requires some employees to wear a substantial amount of personal protective equipment and clothing which protects them from burns and high-heat exposure but increases their susceptibility to heat-related illness.
Temperatures in the hottest sections of the mill hover around 150 degrees in the summer time. It is standard practice for employees working with the molten steel to wear long thermal underwear under their clothing, Kevlar or leather (for welders) gloves, respirators, heat-tempered hard hats with gold reflective face shields, safety shoes or boots, safety glasses and hearing protection. The employee who works in the melt shop where the metal is heated to 2,800 degrees and poured into ingots wears an aluminized full-body suit, including special boots.
"He looks like a spaceman," said Carmen Louise, director of safety communication and training. "He has to look directly into the ladle (which pours the steel), which is about 2,700 degrees, to make sure it's not blocked. The heat is unreal. I stood 25 feet in front of the ladle and took a picture and couldn't stay more than a minute or two; it was too hot."
Employees in the melt shop wear flame-retardant jackets and pants to protect them from flying molten steel, said Louise. Some employees also wear cooling vests and use cold pack inserts in their hard hats, which help keep them cooler, but add additional weight. (Crucible provides employees with protective equipment and clothing.)
"We have a really great all-around safety program here at Crucible and protecting against heat stress is just one aspect of it," said Walker. "It includes PPE, engineering and administrative controls, employee training, and encouragement from management to try new things to help employees stay as comfortable as possible in a hot environment."
If You Can't Take the Heat...
It takes a special kind of employee to work in a steel mill, said Walker.
"If heat is a problem for potential employees, they usually don't apply here," said Walker. "Many of our workers have been here for years and the heat doesn't bother them like it might someone who has never been inside a steel mill. These guys and women are tough."
Crucible employs 800 workers in 20 different departments. Jobs range from office and management positions to laboratory workers to the men and women who pour, mold, finish and ship what will eventually become bars of valve steel. The only "finished" product made at Crucible is a tool bit.
The mill itself, which includes two melt shops where the highest temperatures are found, is 120 years old. Although the buildings are old, this mill houses some state-of-the-art equipment and updates which help employees keep their cool.
"Safety and engineering work closely together when equipment is purchased or updated to ensure exposures are reduced whenever possible. Whatever we can do together to make a safer workplace -- reduce noise and heat, enclose or guard equipment, shield workers -- we do it," said Walker. "I network with other safety professionals and do as much research as possible to find the newest technology and products to protect employees from heat and workplace hazards. Management encourages me to try new things."
The pulpits in the rolling mills feature air conditioning and bullet-proof glass which is thick enough to help reflect heat, said Louise. The drivers' compartments on the cranes used to transport the steel from one area to another are also fitted with air conditioning.
Wherever possible, large fans are brought in to work areas to circulate the air and cool employees. Water fountains and machines which dispense free, cold, electrolyte-replacement drinks are found throughout the facility.
Employees working in the highest-heat areas are encouraged to take frequent breaks, said Louise. Some of the crews begin their work days at 5:00 a.m., so they can finish up in the early afternoon before temperatures build up.
'Tis the Season
As temperatures begin to rise with the spring flowers, Crucible employees receive memos about the increased potential for heat stress, both on the job and off. Work crews have safety talks before each shift, and they are frequently reminded of the symptoms of heat stroke and exhaustion. Crucible has a different safety theme each month, and heat stress is always a late spring/early summer topic.
Because heat is a year-'round concern, information about heat stress is included in new employee safety orientation meetings, and department supervisors mention it when they take new employees on walk-throughs of their work areas.
A job safety analysis is conducted before any new job task is started. If heat is a hazard for that job, then employees are reminded about the clothing and equipment they need to wear and about the potential for heat exhaustion or stroke.
Each of the three unions on site has a safety representative from the locals, and there are 50 safety leaders who are chosen by the safety chairmen and approved by the department heads. The safety leaders conduct walk-throughs of their areas and are taught to recognize a number of safety hazards, including the signs of heat stress. Safety leaders receive CPR and first aid training, and there are also EMTs, security guards and a fire marshal who have received first aid and CPR training and can be called in case of emergency.
"These guys really look out for each other," said head company nurse Nancy Mehlem, R.N. "They'll pull each other aside and say, 'You don't look so good.'"
Should an employee start showing symptoms of heat-related illness, he or she is taken to the company medical office, which is staffed by three nurses. There, the decision is made whether or not the employee needs further medical care from a physician or should be taken to an emergency room.
Surprisingly, only one or two workers a year are treated for heat distress, despite the layers of protective clothing many employees wear, said Mehlem.
"Those are usually mild cases that happen because they didn't drink enough liquids before, during or after their shifts. Once they are in a cooler area and we rehydrate them, they are fine," she said.
The Key to Success
Walker credits company efforts to educate and protect employees with the success of the heat stress prevention program. Another important aspect of the program, said Louise, is the willingness of management to listen to, and act on, employee suggestions and the willingness of employees to become involved with the safety process.
"Employees are out there every day and they have the best knowledge about working conditions. They support each other and they are quick to let their safety leaders know if they have a concern, whether it's a stopped-up toilet or a missing machine guard," said Louise.
The company also has a formal safety suggestion program called "safety concern reports." The reports can be submitted to members of the safety department, safety leaders or to members of the company's safety committee -- which includes representatives from the 20 departments, the safety chairmen from the three unions, and the company president and vice president. The committee meets once a week and review of the safety concern reports is an important agenda item.
"The committee discusses the reports and comes up with solutions or action plans. We keep working on it, and include the person who submitted it in the process, until that employee is satisfied with the result. We don't just give lip service to safety or employee involvement," said Walker.
In fact, Louise said that "without employee awareness of safety issues and the input of safety leaders and employees, we could never improve the safety program. They are crucial."
One recent safety concern report involved the flame-retardant clothing employees wore. Walker admits that some coveralls, when worn over thermals and with gloves, shoes, face shields and hard hats, "are like walking around in a sauna."
"Employees wanted to know if we could get coveralls that would be cooler. I looked around, tried out several kinds, and chose Kleenguard Heavy Duty garments (from Kimberly-Clark) because they protect the workers, but are made from a breathable fabric," said Walker.
Other examples of employee suggestions which have been adopted by the company include replacing the regular glass windows in some control booths with tempered glass that reflects more heat and keeps the booths cooler. Complaints about wrist burns from hot chips that fell down inside gloves were resolved by the purchase of gloves with knitted wrists.
Walker said she is willing to look at equipment and clothing choices on an almost-individual basis, if necessary.
"Employees come in all shapes and sizes, and what works for a group might not work for one person in that group," said Walker. If that one person is hurt as a result, then she feels she's failed in her mission. "This is hard, hot work. My job is to make their jobs safer and, when possible, easier. It's sometimes trial-and-error, but the effort is worth it."