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Nick Avgerinos
Nick Avgerinos
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Nerves of Steel: Steelworkers Brave Steep Safety Stats

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July was construction safety month, providing much-needed safety information for an industry with a consistently high accident rate, resulting in both injuries and deaths. But plenty of dangers lurk indoors as well; many factory workers are exposed to similar hazards each day. Case in point: the steel industry. And, although there aren’t nearly the same number of fatalities (14, compared to 1,239 in 2006), one aspect of the steel industry is certainly more alarming: a strong upward trend in fatality statistics.

In the first half of 2008 alone, there have been 15 fatalities. The accidents related to these fatalities vary in nature, ranging from falls to explosions. What’s striking is the number. In 2005, there were “only” 8 fatalities. That means that if the fatality rate continues at the same rate this year, resulting in a full-year total of 30, there is an over 300% increase in fatality rate in only 3 years. That’s a big enough jump to get anyone’s attention.

Now for the really scary part; there’s no discernable trend to justify this rise. The only clue is that, while employment in the steel industry has hovered around 100,000, it seems that overtime has increased approximately 20% this year. More time on the job obviously increases one’s risk of injury. But a 20% increase in time on the job hardly justifies an expected 300% increase in the fatality rate.

So, the mystery continues. As John Surma, CEO of U.S. Steel explained, “There was no pattern of age or experience, poor health or drug use or exposure to a common unsafe condition that figured in the fatalities.” He went on to say that “the only thing that was true in every case was that something went horribly wrong.”

And while some are blaming the increase in accidents on the consolidation of companies (and safety measures consequently falling through the cracks), industry insiders say it just isn’t so. In fact, as the Wall Street Journal reported, the steel industry has actually increased safety measures in recent years, including better protective clothing to protect workers from furnaces and improved harnesses for crane operators.

Hopefully, time and increased scrutiny will help to highlight how safety can be improved in the industry. The Steel Manufacturers Association is currently working on a fatality prevention plan, targeting five areas that have proven most hazardous. In the meantime, it’s important for companies to emphasize existing safety measures and for employees to follow them. It’s also important to stay informed; the United Steelworkers of America maintains a Safety Alerts section on its website, designed to identify hazards and strive for solutions. Remember that steel industry safety is one area that’s definitely not malleable.