It could never happen to us…

Corus had a good safety record until tragedy struck in November – a telling
reminder that it is just not safe to assume disasters will always happen to
someone else, By Nic Paton

It will be many months before it is clear what caused the deaths of three
workmen in November 2001’s horrific explosion at the Corus steel plant in Port
Talbot. The blast, which injured 15 men, five of them critically, is a tragedy
for the town, which is reliant on the industry, and also for Corus, the firm
formerly known as British Steel before its merger with Dutch rival Koninklijke
Hoogovens.

Despite a number of high-profile setbacks – notably the explosion in 2000 at
its Llanwern plant that left a worker with a fractured spine and led in
November 2001 to a record £300,000 fine – Corus generally has a good safety
record in an industry that has to deal with many risk factors within the
workplace. 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 at
height and with electricity.

Since the explosion on 8 November, a total of four investigations have got
under way. The lead investigation is being carried out by the South Wales
Police. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE), Corus itself and the main trades
union, the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation (ISTC) are carrying out their
own investigations.

It is still too early to say with any certainty what was behind the blast in
furnace number five. What is clear is that just before the explosion staff were
working on controlling the temperature within the furnace, as what Corus
describes as "an abnormality in the operating temperature" had been
noticed. This would have involved using water to quench some of the heat
inside.

Other operations were carrying on as usual, with workers drilling through
the clay plug at the side of the furnace and tapping the molten material
inside, a procedure that happens many times a day. There was also a team of
contractors carrying out maintenance work on some of the surrounding pipes.
These three factors meant more workers than usual were in the vicinity of the
furnace.

Furnace number five weighs about 1,000 tonnes and it is estimated there was
some 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 at
the 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, molten
iron 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 was
badly 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 – were
killed 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 safety
investigations. But even here investigators have had to wait a number of weeks
for it to cool down to a point where it is stable and fully accessible. A
controlled operation to quench the furnace began at the end of November.

"The examination of the scene will take quite a while. It will take
months rather than weeks," says Mike Cosman, the HSE’s head of operations
for Wales and the West. Computer and manual records, maintenance logs and other
documentary evidence will be closely investigated, and key workers will be
interviewed.

Issues being examined include the precautionary measures and safety
management 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 reported
half-year pre-tax losses of £230m. The ISTC has raised concerns that Corus cut
the jobs of many health and safety representatives.

"Corus has lost a lot of people who have a lot of experience and who
have 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 may
emphasise the need for high standards in health and safety, the message does
not always filter down to regional and local manager level, he argues.

Another issue of concern to the ISTC is the drift towards multi-skilling
among workers, with fears that employees are not being adequately trained to
cope with the extra responsibilities. The union also complains that its safety
reps are not involved enough in helping to implement company initiatives.

But the HSE’s Cosman is careful to steer clear of suggestions that the tough
economic environment faced by the company could have been a contributory
factor. Reducing the workforce does not in itself make a plant less safe, he
argues. Sometimes it actually means maintenance becomes a higher priority.

"The danger in these circumstances is that there are plenty of people
who will try to jump on the bandwagon. This will be a properly analysed
investigation 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 one
priority at the plant. "Our target is to have zero accidents," he
says.

"Safety is not compromised in any way at all in relation to the
economic conditions. We have made that very clear."

Built in 1959, the furnace was not old in terms of industry standards and
had 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 integrate
protocols into day-to-day process, to make them second nature, argues Steven
Pearce, health and safety manager. He and his colleagues have been working to
improve behavioural aspects, givingindividuals more responsibility for what
they do.

The working environment, the competence of workers and the behaviour and
culture of employees are the three key health and safety factors that need to
be addressed, he adds.

In the Welsh Assembly, first minister Rhodri Morgan has been kept under
pressure from members worried about the company’s safety record. Just days
after the blast, Morgan was forced to reassure the assembly that no abnormal
maintenance 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 1994
and the furnace had been regularly checked.

This did not stop mutterings among some assembly members that the safety of
the furnace had been a "talking point" among workers for weeks prior
to the blast – something Corus denies.

According to MacLachlan, the company has worked tirelessly to assuage these
concerns, bringing assembly members to the plant and explaining, as far as it
can, what happened and what it is now doing. "Their concerns have been
dealt with," he insists.

While the four investigations are primarily looking at health and safety
issues, getting the plant back to full operational capacity will also throw up
some occupational health issues, suggests the HSE’s Cosman. Dangers from heat
and dust inhalation and possibly exposure to asbestos as a result of the
clean-up operation must be considered, as must musculoskeletal injuries
associated with making heavy items safe.

Psychological impact

Another issue that is being addressed by Corus is the psychological impact
of the blast on workers, their families and those who have been injured or
bereaved.

In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, the company appointed staff to
act on as go betweens with the families of the dead or hospitalised workers,
helping with issues such as accommodation and finances and generally offering
support.

This has now been extended to others exposed to the incident. Counsellors
have also been working with individual workers and groups of employees.

Compared to even 20 years ago, health and safety within the steel industry
has improved dramatically. Sneddon, who worked at the Ravenscraig steel works
in the early 1980s, says the vast majority of plants today are much safer
places.

In the 12 months before the explosion, the Port Talbot plant reported a 22
per cent drop in time off because of accidents among workers, a key indicator
of health and safety effectiveness.

Any lessons or recommendations that come out from the investigations into
the 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 has
to be everyone’s business," says Sneddon.

"The traditional culture within the company, has always been one of ‘it
will never happen to me’, this needs to change dramatically," he adds.

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