ACCIDENTS STILL HAPPEN
Is the metals industry safe or dangerous? It depends, in part, on which segment of the metals industry you study. But in general, it isn’t as dangerous as many think: Safety rates are improving in all areas of the business, and big companies, despite a steady stream of news reports about fatalities at mills elsewhere around the world, are actually safer places to work than they might appear.
But the reality is that accident rates are not likely to decline much more in coming years. That’s because the amount of backbreaking work is not declining rapidly, the average age of metals industry workers is rising and repetitive-stress injuries are far more frequent among older people. The low-hanging fruit from the safety movement is just about gone.
“It will take a breakthrough in leadership, technology, awareness and employee participation to continue the downward trend in reportable and lost-time accidents,” says Steven Milanoski, quality and safety director for Feralloy Corp. in Chicago and Metals Service Center Institute safety committee chairman.
Reliance Steel & Aluminum’s Toma Metals operation in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, for example, did just that with gloves. When brothers Jeff and Lynn Harding went to work there as plant manager and director of human resources and safety, respectively, in 2000, they found employees lacerated their hands and fingers as they handled non-prime, light-gauge, flat sheet metal pieces that individually could be as large as 10 feet by eight feet and weigh up to 500 pounds. Toma, a diversified metals processor and distributor, deals in secondary stainless steel, so “we do a lot of handling in the course of a day” to sort through the sheets to find pieces that aren’t scratched or nicked, Lynn Harding says. For a given shift, up to 25 people—in the receiving area, in shipping and in the main facility—could be handling steel. “There’s a lot of potential to get cut,” he says.
When the Hardings started at Toma, workers used leather gloves, which tore easily and offered insufficient protection. Lynn recalls seeing workers’ gloves marked with holes and duct tape. In 2002, Toma reported 15 recordable accidents with an incidence rate (the number of accidents per 100 employees) of 38.2.
After about a year of experimenting with a variety of handwear, the solution was a very thin Kevlar glove, which allows dexterity while being resistant to cuts. Those gloves are sheathed within a second, leather pair, which protects the Kevlar from punctures. In 2008, Toma posted only two recordable accidents, with an incidence rate of seven. None involved hand injuries in the sorting process.
The price tag? The washable Kevlar gloves cost $3.65 a pair, and the leather ones come $25 a dozen. “We go through the leather gloves quickly, in a day sometimes,” Lynn Harding says. But at that price and with those results, disposability is not a concern. Policing is easy, too, as supervisors can tell at a glance if workers aren’t wearing double layers of gloves.
Such tenacity is one of the primary reasons metals service centers are much safer than they used to be, Feralloy’s Milanoski says. He cites a recent MSCI-sponsored safety survey that charts a decline in accidents at metals service centers over a six-year period. Moreover, the accident rate at service centers is improving faster than the rate for the metals industry in general.
The survey, covering 2002 to 2007, received responses from 74 MSCI-member companies with 739 different locations. Almost 62% of respondents identified themselves as primarily service centers, the rest as producers, processors and others. Conducted during spring 2008, the survey was designed chiefly to enable metals service centers to compare their safety performances to other, likesized companies in the metals industry.
Survey respondents reported their average observed incidence rate from 2002 to 2007 improved—that is, decreased— almost three times faster than the North American Industry Classification Systemstatistics for companies overall listed under NAICS code 331 (primary metals industries, representing some 400,000 workers in the United States), Milanoski notes. (See “Safety Performance,” above, and “Apples to Apples,” p. 8.) The category “primary metals industries” includes operations that manufacture castings and other basic metal products; are engaged in smelting and refining ferrous and nonferrous metals from ore, pig or scrap; and roll, draw and alloy metals, among other functions.
Additional conclusions from the survey include:
The larger metals companies, those with payrolls of one million man-hours or more, and many of them producers, had the lowest average incidence rate among survey respondents for 2007, at 5.8 incidents. For the beginning of the survey period, those larger companies already were relatively pretty low, with 11.2 incidents in 2002. The reason for these low numbers is the larger companies, which come under more scrutiny from Occupational Safety & Health Administration, have generally focused more resources on safety issues and have done so for longer, Milanoski suggests.
Smaller companies have improved their safety records faster than bigger companies. Among survey respondents, companies with fewer than 200,000 man-hours per year, or fewer than 100 employees, went from an incidence rate of 22.1 in 2002 to 8.5 in 2007.
The average lost-time rate for respondents overall was less than two-thirds of those listed under NAICS code 331, and improved twice as fast.
The survey did not analyze differences between steel and aluminum or look for any Canada-versus-U.S. trends. But a second survey that sought additional classification data went out in February, with results expected at the end of the first quarter 2009, Milanoski says.
The survey results also illustrated the need for new ideas, along with constant vigilance, to make facilities even safer.
“While the measurements are improving, we’re starting to see a plateau in the overall stats,” Milanoski says. “We’re seeing a slowing decrease of accidents.” A new way of looking at safety is needed to keep those numbers dropping, especially in an industry in which it isn’t unusual for facilities to boast 15- to 30-year employees.
“You’ve got guys working on concrete floors using heavy machinery,” says Michael Kruse, corporate director of safety and loss control for Reliance. “There are ergonomic issues.”
That would be why, as the number of reported injuries moves closer to zero, worker ailments are more inclined to include repetitive-motion and muscular-skeletal disorders for which causes are harder to identify, Milanoski says. (Aging and ergonomics were right behind compliance, training and leadership as chief safety concerns among most survey respondents.)
Employee buy-in is crucial to improving safety, contends Kruse, who is based in Reliance’s Los Angeles corporate office. Staying healthy and being pain-free aren’t only in the best interests of the company, but in the employees’ as well. The question is how to motivate employees best to prioritize safety. After all, employers for decades have touted health and wellness to reduce health-care-benefit costs.
Reliance employees responsible for safety met in February this year to compare notes on Dupont’s Safety Training Observation Program (STOP), a strategy Reliance instituted more than a year ago. The program involves training everyone from senior leadership to floor workers to recognize and communicate—in a “non-adversarial way,” Kruse says—unsafe behavior on the plant floor. And it’s designed to make sure “everybody is watching everybody else’s back,” he says.
Sal Caccavale, corporate senior manager of environmental health and safety at A.M. Castle & Co. in Franklin Park, Illinois, believes achieving such a goal requires a hard line. Workers are responsible for arriving to work on time and performing their assigned tasks, he reasons, so they should be held accountable for safety, too.
“Working safely is a condition of employment” at A.M. Castle, Caccavale says. Safety slackers will be given a situation-appropriate number of warnings, followed by some coaching where necessary. No one’s been fired thus far, though, he notes.
Employees on the work floor, not just supervisors, also need to be involved in job-hazard analysis, whether it’s bringing the necessity of equipment repairs to managers’ attention, advocating better ventilation or improved protective gear, or serving on site safety committees.
Copies of the survey, made available to respondents, can be ordered by contacting MSCI at 847-485-3000.