Fanning the flames

With four separate investigations under way after the explosion at the Corus
facility in Port Talbot last year, could pressure to cut costs have
inadvertently compromised health and safety at the plant? Nick Paton reports

When furnace number five at the Corus steel plant in Port Talbot expl-oded
on 8 November 2001, eye- witnesses spoke of flames shooting hundreds of feet
into the air. Others recounted feeling the heat from the blast on their faces,
while workers told on-scene reporters of other fires that had to be
extinguished and the black smoke that billowed around the site.

"We are so used to seeing the flames and the smoke, but this was
totally different – it was just a mass of flames in- between the houses,"
a nurse living near the plant told the BBC.

The explosion killed three workmen and injured 15, five of them critically.
It is expected to be some months yet before it is clear what caused the
accident. But the explosion is a tragedy for the families of the workers, the
town – which is reliant on the industry – and also for Corus, 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 to a
record £300,000 fine in November – Corus generally has a good safety record in
an industry that has to deal with many risk factors in the workplace. Corus has
described the Port Talbot accident as "unprecedented".

The only other accident remotely like it happened in Lake Michigan, Chicago,
nearly 40 years ago, when five workers died and 19 were injured.

Since the Port Talbot explosion, four investigations have started. The lead
investigation is being carried out by the South Wales Police, with the Health
and Safety Executive (HSE), Corus and the main trade union, the Iron and Steel
Trades Confederation (ISTC), 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, however, is that just before the explosion,
staff were working to control 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

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 number five weighs about 1,000 tonnes and it is estimated there was
about 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.
Of the three workers who died, Steven Galsworthy, 25, and Andrew Hutin, 20,
were killed at the scene, while colleague Len Radford, 53, died later in

The furnace will, inevitably, be at the centre of the health and safety
investigations. But investigators have had to wait weeks for it to cool down to
a point where it is stable and fully accessible. A controlled operation to cool
the furnace began at the end of November and was only completed recently.

Investigators are now raking out the contents of the furnace and want to get
inside to take a closer look at what went wrong. A remote-controlled camera
will initially be sent inside to assess the damage followed by, if it is safe,
the investigators themselves.

"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 manual records, maintenance logs and other
documentary evidence will be closely investigated and key workers interviewed,
he adds.

Issues such as what workplace precautions were in place and what safety
management systems there were will be examined. The adequacy of resourcing will
also come under the spotlight. In 2001, Corus cut 6,000 jobs in England and
Wales and reported half-year pre-tax losses of £230m in September. The ISTC has
raised concerns that, among the job losses, Corus has got rid of many health
and safety representatives.

"It has lost a lot of people with a lot of experience who have been
well trained in health and safety issues," says Robert Sneddon, research
officer for health and safety at the ISTC.

The company also has a culture of long hours and, while directors may
emphasise health and safety, the message does not always filter down to
regional and local manager level, he argues.

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

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. Demanning does not, in itself, make a plant less safe, he says.
Sometimes it means maintenance becomes a higher priority. "The danger in
these circumstances is there are plenty of people who will try to jump on the
bandwagon. This will be a properly analysed investigation based on data not
gossip and innuendo," he says.

And Jack MacLachlan, manufacturing director for Corus Strip Products UK,
stresses 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."

The furnace, built in 1959, was not old in terms of the industry and had
been subject to an ongoing 12-month safety review. It was relined in 1989, he

One of the key health and safety thrusts at the plant has been to integrate
protocols into day-to-day processes, to make them second nature, argues health
and safety manager Steven Pearce. He and his colleagues have been working to
improve behavioural aspects, giving individuals more responsibility for what
they do, engaging chemicals giant DuPont as an adviser on this issue.

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 is 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 before 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 before the blast – something the company denies.

According to MacLachlan, the company has bent over backwards to assuage
these concerns, bringing assembly members to the plant and explaining, as far
as they can, what happened and what they are now doing.

"Their concerns have been dealt with," he insists.

Nevertheless, some local MPs remain unconvinced. Earlier this year,
Conservative MP Alun Cairns urged workers and their families, who had concerns
about safety at the plant, to come forward and voice them.

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 other 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 musculo-skeletal injuries associated with
making heavy items safe.

The HR effort has largely been focused on two areas, counselling for
workers, their families and those who have been injured or bereaved and keeping
employees informed about what is going on.

In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, the company appointed employees
to act as go-betweens between the company and the bereaved families and the
workers in hospital, helping with issues such as accommodation and finances and
offering support. This has now been extended to others exposed to the incident.
Counsellors have also been working with individual workers and groups of

The company, for instance, stopped work at the adjoining furnace when the
funerals of the three men took place. "The blast furnace community is a
close one," says MacLachlan.

Beyond this, however, the company declines to comment on what HR processes
were put in place to deal with an explosion such as this and its aftermath,
arguing it is better to wait for the outcome of the investigations.

But a spokesman confirms its HR approach has been "multi-faceted".

Any lessons or recommendations that come out of the investigations into the
events at Corus will not only be applied to Corus, but to the industry as a
whole, adds McLachlan. "That is imperative."

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 the unions have to work at health and safety. It
has to be everyone’s business," says Sneddon. "The traditional
culture in the company has always been one of ‘it will never happen to me’.
This needs to change dramatically," he adds.

One sign of the company’s confidence that it can put the terrible events of
8 November behind it, was the announcement last month that it intends to
demolish and rebuild the severely damaged furnace. It is expected it will come
back on stream in January 2003.

Despite its misgivings over Corus’ attitudes towards safety, the ISTC has
welcomed the announcement. "It is good news, we welcome it," says a

"While nothing is going to take away the cloud that has affected the
whole community since the accident, there is some speculation – which we don’t
believe – that the future of the plant was at risk because of this accident.
Corus has shown it is prepared to safeguard the future of the plant," he

The Port Talbot plant employs 3,000 people out of a community of 51,400. It
dominates the town. Whether they like it or not and whatever the dangers, the
people of Port Talbot need the plant as the town’s only other main industries
are chemicals and oil-processing.

The tight-knit Welsh community will no doubt be relieved their jobs have
been secured for the foreseeable future. But they will also want to know,
before blast furnace number five reopens for business, that the lessons that
contributed to the disaster last year have been well and truly learned.

Safety history

Compared to just 20 years ago, health
and safety in the steel industry has improved dramatically. According to the
ISTC’s Sneddon, who worked at the Ravenscraig steelworks in the early 1980s,
the majority of plants today are much safer places in which to work.

The union’s figures point to safety having improved
dramatically across the industry in the past four years, with accident claims
nearly halving, from 13 per 1,000 members to between 7.4 and 7.5 per 1,000

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