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10 Common Safety and Health Hazards in the Steel Industry

Many hazards are involved in the iron and steel industry, making it essential to protect the safety and health of these workers. By understanding thedangers in the steel industry, accidents can be eliminated, and working environments can be held to higher safety and health standards.

Safety hazards in the steel industry

Common Workplace Hazards

The most common hazards in the steel industry, that pose serious safety threats to employees, are identified as follows.

1. Heat and Burns

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In the steel industry, temperatures and humidity are usually high, with workers exposed to the extreme heat from molten metal, furnaces, and welding operations. Because of this, employees often get burns and heat rashes due to the massive heat, direct contact with hot surfaces, and splashes of molten metal. To prevent burns, employees should carry their protective gear, participate in rigorous training, and learn proper handling procedures to minimize hazards.

Beyond direct exposure to extreme heat, working in hot environments for long periods can cause heat-related illnesses (HRI). Iron and steel industry workers, such as casting and metal workers, face an exceptionally high risk of HRI. These heat-related illnesses (HRI) include heat exhaustion, heat stroke, cramps, dehydration, and employee fatigue. To mitigate these heat-related risks, workers in the steel industry should properly hydrate by drinking one cup of water every 15 to 20 minutes. Furthermore, wearing protective clothing can prevent heat stress-induced effects while providing shaded rest areas for employees to cool down.

New workers in the steel and iron industry are at a higher risk of heat-related illnesses as they have yet to be acclimatized to these environments. For this, newer employees should be trained, educated, and assessed on heat stress and recognizing the symptoms associated with HRI.

PPE to avoid HRI: Heat-resistant suits, aprons, gloves, face shields, and safety goggles to protect workers against splashes of molten metal or exposure to extreme heat.

proximity fire suits for welders

2. Noise-Induced Hearing Loss

The machinery and equipment used in steel production generate high levels of noise. Prolonged exposure to this noise can lead to irreversible hearing loss. Exposure to high noise levels can interfere with communication between employees, resulting in nervous fatigue and an increased risk of occupational injury.

Implementing hearing protection, conducting regular noise assessments, and engineering controls like noise-reducing barriers are crucial in preventing noise-induced hearing loss among workers.

PPE for safety: Earplugs or earmuffs are designed to reduce the impact of high noise levels on workers' hearing.

earplugs used by construction workers

3. Muscle Strain

Steelworkers often engage in repetitive tasks, handle heavy loads, or work in awkward positions, leading to ergonomic hazards. Prolonged exposure to these conditions can result in musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) or muscle strain like tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, or back injuries. To mitigate these risks, implementing ergonomic assessments, providing adjustable workstations, using ergonomic tools, and offering training on proper posture and movement techniques can help reduce ergonomic risks.

PPE for safety: Ergonomic aids such as back support belts, knee pads, or wrist supports can assist in reducing strain. However, the primary prevention involves proper training and mechanical aids rather than conventional PPE.

4. Respiratory Hazards

The processes involved in steel production generate various airborne pollutants, including dust, fumes, aerosols, and gases. Inhaling these harmful agents can lead to pulmonary (lung) issues such as lung irritation, asthma, pneumoconiosis, and, in severe cases, lung cancer. Specific toxic agents such as lead, zinc, nickel, and manganese are heavy metals in the steel and iron industry, causing long-term organ damage.

Among the chemical dangers present in steel mills, asbestos exposure stands out. Additionally, hazards like carbon monoxide, lead, and benzene pose risks to those working in this industry. Silica dust is the most harmful agen to breath in, as it can cause silicosis.

Typically, individuals inhale harmful particles through their nose or mouth. Sometimes, they might ingest these particles by consuming contaminated food or touching their mouth without proper handwashing. Long-term employment in a steel mill or manufacturing plant can lead to occupational illnesses such as emphysema, mesothelioma, lung cancer, leukemia, and other chronic health issues.

Employees must have adequate ventilation systems, respiratory protective equipment, and regular health checkups to combat these hazards.

PPE for safety: Respirators or masks with appropriate filters to prevent inhalation of dust, fumes, or gases. Depending on the specific contaminants, respirators might include N95 masks, particulate filters, or respiratory protection with chemical cartridges.

Respiratory hazards in the iron and steel industry

5. Chemical Exposure

Steel manufacturing processes frequently use chemicals like acids, solvents, and cleaning agents. These substances may present a hazard when coming in contact with the body or absorption into the body. Improper handling or accidental spills can expose workers to these hazardous substances, leading to short-term issues such as skin irritation, chemical burns, or long-term health effects.

Strict adherence to safety protocols, comprehensive training, and appropriate personal protective equipment are imperative to mitigate chemical exposure risks.

PPE for safety: Chemical-resistant gloves, aprons, goggles, or face shields to protect against skin contact or splashes when handling hazardous chemicals.

6. Physical Hazards

Heavy machinery, moving parts, and materials present in steel production facilities pose a risk of crushing and striking injuries. Lack of proper machine guarding, inadequate training, or human error can result in severe injuries or fatalities. Regular maintenance, safety protocols, and employee training on machinery operation and safety measures are essential.

PPE for safety: Steel-toed boots, hard hats, and high-visibility vests for general safety. Additionally, gloves and specific body protection gear when working near moving machinery or heavy equipment.

7. Electrical Hazards

The steel sector heavily relies on electrical equipment and machinery, where issues such as faulty equipment, faulty connections, and failure to adhere to SOPs can cause safety hazards. If proper precautions are not taken, working with electricity poses a significant risk of electric shocks, burns, or even electrocution. Regular inspections, adequate maintenance, grounding systems, and training on electrical safety procedures are essential to prevent electrical accidents.

PPE for safety: Insulated gloves, footwear, and mats to protect against electrical shocks. Additionally, arc flash suits or flame-resistant clothing are used for those working with high-voltage equipment.

8. Confined Spaces

Steel manufacturing facilities often have confined spaces where workers might encounter limited entry or exit points, poor ventilation, and potential exposure to hazardous atmospheres. Risks include asphyxiation, exposure to toxic gases, or the possibility of entrapment or engulfment, leading to accidents or fatalities. Establishing clear entry procedures, proper ventilation, frequent monitoring, and providing specialized training and equipment for working in confined spaces are crucial preventive measures.

PPE for safety: Safety harnesses, lifelines, self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), gas detectors, headlamps, and protective clothing designed for confined spaces.

9. Vibration Hazards

Workers using vibrating tools or machinery are at risk of developing hand-arm vibration syndrome (HAVS). This condition can cause numbness, tingling, reduced dexterity, or even permanent nerve damage in the hands and arms. Preventive measures include implementing ergonomic designs for tools, providing anti-vibration gloves, offering regular breaks from vibrating tools, and educating workers on symptoms and preventive measures.

PPE for safety: Anti-vibration gloves designed to reduce exposure to hand-arm vibration, as well as vibration-dampening materials in tool handles or machinery.

10. Radiation Exposure

Certain steel manufacturing processes involve exposure to radiation sources used in testing and quality control. Improper handling or lack of protection can lead to radiation exposure, causing health issues such as radiation burns, tissue damage, or increased cancer risk. Preventive measures include implementing radiation safety protocols, providing protective gear, maintaining safe distances from radiation sources, and offering radiation safety training.

PPE for safety: Radiation shielding gear like lead aprons, gloves, goggles, face shields, or specialized clothing to protect against radiation exposure.

What Workers Feel About Safety and Hazards in Steel Industry

In an industry filled with heavy machinery and tools, workers in metal and steel are expressing growing worries about the lack of attention to their well-being at work. A recent study highlighted that about a third of metalworkers feel that occupational health and safety should be given more importance in their workplaces. What's more concerning is that more than a quarter feel uncertain about their safety while working. While some, around 38%, feel confident in their job safety, a significant 45% believe that tools designed with better safety features could significantly improve their comfort and security at work.

In the past, entities such as United States Steel Corp. and Bethlehem Steel faced scrutiny from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) due to their inadequacies in safeguarding workers. In 2016, U.S. Steel in Pennsylvania received a fine of $170,000 for subjecting workers to asbestos exposure.

Safety worker injured

Companies Neglecting PPE Use Despite Known Industry Hazards

Several factors contribute to companies failing to observe proper use of PPE despite the known hazards in the industry:

  1. Lack of Awareness or Training:

    In some instances, workplaces must provide workers with adequate training programs that explain the risks within their industry and the proper usage of protective gear.

  2. Cost Considerations:

    Balancing safety and cost is a challenge for many companies. Some companies may opt for cheaper, less effective PPE to minimize expenses. While the initial investment in high-quality PPE might be a financial burden, it can prevent employees from getting hurt and lead to higher savings costs.

  3. Comfort and Fit Issues:

    PPE that is uncomfortable or doesn't fit properly can discourage its consistent use. Ill-fitting gear can impede movement or cause discomfort, leading workers to forgo wearing it despite the risks.

  4. Workplace Culture and Attitudes:

    A workplace culture prioritizes productivity over safety. If workers feel pressured to prioritize speed and efficiency without regard for safety measures, they might overlook or neglect wearing PPE, especially if they perceive it as slowing down their work.

  5. Language or Cultural Barriers:

    In workplaces with diverse populations, language barriers or cultural differences might hinder effective communication about the importance or usage of PPE. Misunderstandings or lack of clarity regarding safety measures could arise due to these barriers.

Steel employees in action

Actions to Reduce Hazards in the Steel Industry

Companies can take several proactive steps to effectively address health and safety issues in the workplace:

  1. Develop a Comprehensive Safety Program:

    Establish a robust health and safety program tailored to the specific risks and hazards of the industry. This program should include clear policies, procedures, and guidelines for maintaining a safe work environment.

  2. Risk Assessment and Hazard Identification:

    Conduct regular risk assessments and hazard analyses to identify potential dangers in the workplace. This involves evaluating tasks, equipment, and environmental factors that could pose risks to employees' health and safety.

  3. Supply Adequate Personal Protective Equipment:

    Provide appropriate PPE for all employees in steel mills based on identified hazards. Ensure that the gear is readily available, properly fitted, and comfortable to encourage consistent use.

  4. Regular Inspections and Maintenance:

    Conduct routine inspections of equipment, machinery, and facilities to ensure they meet safety standards. Implement regular maintenance schedules to prevent equipment failures that could lead to accidents.

  5. Implement Emergency Response Protocols:

    Develop and communicate clear emergency procedures for various scenarios. Conduct drills and training sessions to ensure employees are prepared to respond effectively in case of emergencies.

  6. Compliance with Regulations:

    Ensure compliance with local and national safety regulations and standards. Stay updated with changes in safety laws to adapt policies and procedures accordingly.

  7. By adopting these measures and continually prioritizing health and safety, companies can create a workplace culture that values the well-being of employees and minimizes the risk of accidents or injuries.