It could never happen to us…

first_imgIt could never happen to us…On 1 Jan 2002 in Musculoskeletal disorders, Personnel Today Comments are closed. Previous Article Next Article Corus had a good safety record until tragedy struck in November – a tellingreminder that it is just not safe to assume disasters will always happen tosomeone else, By Nic Paton It will be many months before it is clear what caused the deaths of threeworkmen in November 2001’s horrific explosion at the Corus steel plant in PortTalbot. The blast, which injured 15 men, five of them critically, is a tragedyfor the town, which is reliant on the industry, and also for Corus, the firmformerly known as British Steel before its merger with Dutch rival KoninklijkeHoogovens. Despite a number of high-profile setbacks – notably the explosion in 2000 atits Llanwern plant that left a worker with a fractured spine and led inNovember 2001 to a record £300,000 fine – Corus generally has a good safetyrecord in an industry that has to deal with many risk factors within theworkplace. Corus itself has described the Port Talbot accident as”unprecedented”. A high risk industry Common hazards for workers include exposure to molten metal and slag,dealing with heavy machinery, materials handling, noise exposure and working atheight and with electricity. Since the explosion on 8 November, a total of four investigations have gotunder way. The lead investigation is being carried out by the South WalesPolice. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE), Corus itself and the main tradesunion, the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation (ISTC) are carrying out theirown investigations. It is still too early to say with any certainty what was behind the blast infurnace number five. What is clear is that just before the explosion staff wereworking on controlling the temperature within the furnace, as what Corusdescribes as “an abnormality in the operating temperature” had beennoticed. This would have involved using water to quench some of the heatinside. Other operations were carrying on as usual, with workers drilling throughthe clay plug at the side of the furnace and tapping the molten materialinside, a procedure that happens many times a day. There was also a team ofcontractors carrying out maintenance work on some of the surrounding pipes.These three factors meant more workers than usual were in the vicinity of thefurnace. Furnace number five weighs about 1,000 tonnes and it is estimated there wassome 2,000 tonnes of solid material and liquid iron inside it, known as burden.The force of the blast separated the furnace about a third of the way up atthe point where there is a joint that allows natural expansion and contraction,creating a gap of a few inches. This allowed a combination of ash, slag, molteniron and ore to pour out. Following the blast, the furnace settled back,closing the gap, but landing slightly off centre on its hearth. The furnace floor is enclosed on three sides by steel sheeting. This wasbadly damaged, with a hole blown through one side, as was some of the pipework.Two workers who died – Steven Galsworthy, 25, and Andrew Hutin, 20 – werekilled at the scene, while colleague Len Radford, 53, died later in hospital. The investigation The furnace will inevitably be at the centre of the health and safetyinvestigations. But even here investigators have had to wait a number of weeksfor it to cool down to a point where it is stable and fully accessible. Acontrolled operation to quench the furnace began at the end of November. “The examination of the scene will take quite a while. It will takemonths rather than weeks,” says Mike Cosman, the HSE’s head of operationsfor Wales and the West. Computer and manual records, maintenance logs and otherdocumentary evidence will be closely investigated, and key workers will beinterviewed. Issues being examined include the precautionary measures and safetymanagement systems that were in place at the time of the incident. The adequacy of resourcing will also come under the spotlight. During 2001,Corus cut some 6,000 jobs in England and Wales and in September reportedhalf-year pre-tax losses of £230m. The ISTC has raised concerns that Corus cutthe jobs of many health and safety representatives. “Corus has lost a lot of people who have a lot of experience and whohave been well trained in health and safety,” says Robert Sneddon,research officer for health and safety at the union. The company also has a culture of long hours, and while directors mayemphasise the need for high standards in health and safety, the message doesnot always filter down to regional and local manager level, he argues. Another issue of concern to the ISTC is the drift towards multi-skillingamong workers, with fears that employees are not being adequately trained tocope with the extra responsibilities. The union also complains that its safetyreps are not involved enough in helping to implement company initiatives. But the HSE’s Cosman is careful to steer clear of suggestions that the tougheconomic environment faced by the company could have been a contributoryfactor. Reducing the workforce does not in itself make a plant less safe, heargues. Sometimes it actually means maintenance becomes a higher priority. “The danger in these circumstances is that there are plenty of peoplewho will try to jump on the bandwagon. This will be a properly analysedinvestigation based on data rather than gossip and innuendo,” he says. Health and safety issues Jack MacLachlan, manufacturing director for Corus Strip Products UK,stresses that health and safety is, and has always been, the number onepriority at the plant. “Our target is to have zero accidents,” hesays. “Safety is not compromised in any way at all in relation to theeconomic conditions. We have made that very clear.” Built in 1959, the furnace was not old in terms of industry standards andhad been subject to an ongoing 12-month safety review. It was relined in 1989,adds MacLachlan. One of the key health and safety thrusts at the plant has been to integrateprotocols into day-to-day process, to make them second nature, argues StevenPearce, health and safety manager. He and his colleagues have been working toimprove behavioural aspects, givingindividuals more responsibility for whatthey do. The working environment, the competence of workers and the behaviour andculture of employees are the three key health and safety factors that need tobe addressed, he adds. In the Welsh Assembly, first minister Rhodri Morgan has been kept underpressure from members worried about the company’s safety record. Just daysafter the blast, Morgan was forced to reassure the assembly that no abnormalmaintenance work had been carried out on the furnace prior to the explosion. He said there had been no molten metal break outs at the plant since 1994and the furnace had been regularly checked. This did not stop mutterings among some assembly members that the safety ofthe furnace had been a “talking point” among workers for weeks priorto the blast – something Corus denies. According to MacLachlan, the company has worked tirelessly to assuage theseconcerns, bringing assembly members to the plant and explaining, as far as itcan, what happened and what it is now doing. “Their concerns have beendealt with,” he insists. While the four investigations are primarily looking at health and safetyissues, getting the plant back to full operational capacity will also throw upsome occupational health issues, suggests the HSE’s Cosman. Dangers from heatand dust inhalation and possibly exposure to asbestos as a result of theclean-up operation must be considered, as must musculoskeletal injuriesassociated with making heavy items safe. Psychological impact Another issue that is being addressed by Corus is the psychological impactof the blast on workers, their families and those who have been injured orbereaved. In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, the company appointed staff toact on as go betweens with the families of the dead or hospitalised workers,helping with issues such as accommodation and finances and generally offeringsupport. This has now been extended to others exposed to the incident. Counsellorshave also been working with individual workers and groups of employees. Compared to even 20 years ago, health and safety within the steel industryhas improved dramatically. Sneddon, who worked at the Ravenscraig steel worksin the early 1980s, says the vast majority of plants today are much saferplaces. In the 12 months before the explosion, the Port Talbot plant reported a 22per cent drop in time off because of accidents among workers, a key indicatorof health and safety effectiveness. Any lessons or recommendations that come out from the investigations intothe tragic events at Port Talbot will not only be applied to Corus but to”the blast furnace community” as a whole, says MacLachlan. For the ISTC, the key lesson to learn is the need to get away from a”them and us” approach to health and safety. “Both the company and unions have to work at health and safety. It hasto be everyone’s business,” says Sneddon. “The traditional culture within the company, has always been one of ‘itwill never happen to me’, this needs to change dramatically,” he adds. Related posts:No related photos.last_img