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 bums 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 trans- port 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. …