Fanning the flames

first_imgWith four separate investigations under way after the explosion at the Corusfacility in Port Talbot last year, could pressure to cut costs haveinadvertently compromised health and safety at the plant? Nick Paton reportsWhen furnace number five at the Corus steel plant in Port Talbot expl-odedon 8 November 2001, eye- witnesses spoke of flames shooting hundreds of feetinto 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 beextinguished and the black smoke that billowed around the site. “We are so used to seeing the flames and the smoke, but this wastotally 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 theaccident. But the explosion is a tragedy for the families of the workers, thetown – which is reliant on the industry – and also for Corus, formerly known asBritish Steel before its merger with Dutch rival Koninklijke Hoogovens. 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 to arecord £300,000 fine in November – Corus generally has a good safety record inan industry that has to deal with many risk factors in the workplace. Corus hasdescribed 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 leadinvestigation is being carried out by the South Wales Police, with the Healthand Safety Executive (HSE), Corus and the main trade union, the Iron and SteelTrades Confederation (ISTC), carrying out their own investigations. It is still too early to say with any certainty what was behind the blast infurnace number five. What is clear, however, is that just before the explosion,staff were working to control 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 wasabout 2,000 tonnes of solid material and liquid iron inside it, known asburden. The force of the blast separated the furnace about a third of the wayup, at the point where there is a joint that allows natural expansion andcontraction, 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 settledback, 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.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 inhospital. The furnace will, inevitably, be at the centre of the health and safetyinvestigations. But investigators have had to wait weeks for it to cool down toa point where it is stable and fully accessible. A controlled operation to coolthe 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 getinside to take a closer look at what went wrong. A remote-controlled camerawill 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 takemonths rather than weeks,” says Mike Cosman, the HSE’s head of operationsfor Wales and the West. Computer manual records, maintenance logs and otherdocumentary evidence will be closely investigated and key workers interviewed,he adds. Issues such as what workplace precautions were in place and what safetymanagement systems there were will be examined. The adequacy of resourcing willalso come under the spotlight. In 2001, Corus cut 6,000 jobs in England andWales and reported half-year pre-tax losses of £230m in September. The ISTC hasraised concerns that, among the job losses, Corus has got rid of many healthand safety representatives. “It has lost a lot of people with a lot of experience who have beenwell trained in health and safety issues,” says Robert Sneddon, researchofficer for health and safety at the ISTC. The company also has a culture of long hours and, while directors mayemphasise health and safety, the message does not always filter down toregional and local manager level, he argues. Another issue of concern to the union is the drift towards multi-skillingamong workers, with fears that employees are not being trained adequately tocope with the extra responsibilities. The union complains its safetyrepresentatives are not involved enough in helping to implement companyinitiatives. 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. Demanning does not, in itself, make a plant less safe, he says.Sometimes it means maintenance becomes a higher priority. “The danger inthese circumstances is there are plenty of people who will try to jump on thebandwagon. This will be a properly analysed investigation based on data notgossip 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 atthe plant. “Our target is to have zero accidents,” he says.”Safety is not compromised in any way at all in relation to the economicconditions. We have made that very clear.” The furnace, built in 1959, was not old in terms of the industry and hadbeen subject to an ongoing 12-month safety review. It was relined in 1989, headds. One of the key health and safety thrusts at the plant has been to integrateprotocols into day-to-day processes, to make them second nature, argues healthand safety manager Steven Pearce. He and his colleagues have been working toimprove behavioural aspects, giving individuals more responsibility for whatthey do, engaging chemicals giant DuPont as an adviser on this issue. 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 is under pressure frommembers worried about the company’s safety record. Just days after the blast,Morgan was forced to reassure the assembly that no abnormal maintenance workhad been carried out on the furnace before 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 amongsome 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 assuagethese concerns, bringing assembly members to the plant and explaining, as faras 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 concernsabout safety at the plant, to come forward and voice them. While the four investigations are primarily looking at health and safetyissues, getting the plant back to full operational capacity will also throw upsome other health issues, suggests the HSE’s Cosman. Dangers from heat and dustinhalation and possibly exposure to asbestos as a result of the clean-upoperation must be considered, as must musculo-skeletal injuries associated withmaking heavy items safe. The HR effort has largely been focused on two areas, counselling forworkers, their families and those who have been injured or bereaved and keepingemployees informed about what is going on. In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, the company appointed employeesto act as go-betweens between the company and the bereaved families and theworkers in hospital, helping with issues such as accommodation and finances andoffering support. This has now been extended to others exposed to the incident.Counsellors have also been working with individual workers and groups ofemployees. The company, for instance, stopped work at the adjoining furnace when thefunerals of the three men took place. “The blast furnace community is aclose one,” says MacLachlan. Beyond this, however, the company declines to comment on what HR processeswere 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 theevents at Corus will not only be applied to Corus, but to the industry as awhole, 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. Ithas to be everyone’s business,” says Sneddon. “The traditionalculture 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 of8 November behind it, was the announcement last month that it intends todemolish and rebuild the severely damaged furnace. It is expected it will comeback on stream in January 2003. Despite its misgivings over Corus’ attitudes towards safety, the ISTC haswelcomed the announcement. “It is good news, we welcome it,” says aspokesman. “While nothing is going to take away the cloud that has affected thewhole community since the accident, there is some speculation – which we don’tbelieve – 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,” hesays. The Port Talbot plant employs 3,000 people out of a community of 51,400. Itdominates the town. Whether they like it or not and whatever the dangers, thepeople of Port Talbot need the plant as the town’s only other main industriesare chemicals and oil-processing. The tight-knit Welsh community will no doubt be relieved their jobs havebeen secured for the foreseeable future. But they will also want to know,before blast furnace number five reopens for business, that the lessons thatcontributed to the disaster last year have been well and truly learned. Safety historyCompared to just 20 years ago, healthand safety in the steel industry has improved dramatically. According to theISTC’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 improveddramatically across the industry in the past four years, with accident claimsnearly halving, from 13 per 1,000 members to between 7.4 and 7.5 per 1,000members. Fanning the flamesOn 12 Feb 2002 in Personnel Today Previous Article Next Article Related posts:No related photos. Comments are closed. last_img read more

In Texas, an Emerging Problem for Democrats on the Border

first_imgMr. Trump defeated Joseph R. Biden Jr. in Texas, winning a more narrow victory than he had in 2016 but winning nonetheless. Senator John Cornyn, a Republican, won re-election. Wendy Davis lost again, one of several Democrats who tried and failed to grab Republican-controlled congressional seats. A push to flip the Texas House foundered, as Republicans held on to their majority. – Advertisement – Many residents in this part of Texas have strong Christian, anti-abortion, pro-gun and back-the-blue views that put them more in line with conservatives than liberals, and in Zapata, there is a strong sense among his supporters that Mr. Trump will bring jobs to the economically struggling region.In a brief exchange during the final presidential debate, Mr. Biden had said he would “transition from the oil industry” because of its pollution, a remark that did not go unnoticed by Zapata residents, including Yvette Gutierrez De Leon, 56, who is a secretary for an oil-field services company and who voted for Mr. Trump.“At the end of the day, in the little bit of oil field that is still left, if it goes away tomorrow our county will go away,” Ms. De Leon said. “Oil is all we have here.”Isela Gonzalez-Lindquist, 42, a saleswoman at a Laredo mattress store, said she voted for Mr. Trump even though she was opposed to his plans to extend the border wall in the area, because she believed it would hurt wildlife and infringe on the rights of property owners.“I want to convey that he is not perfect and we know that, but he is the best candidate for the job,” she said. “I like Trump’s grit and that he’s not a career politician.”James Dobbins reported from Zapata, and Manny Fernandez from Houston. David Montgomery contributed reporting from Austin, Texas. ZAPATA, Texas — Democrats spent years focusing on how they could finally win Texas. But since Tuesday’s election, they have been wrestling with a more pressing question: How did they lose Zapata County?In the reliably Democratic and majority-Hispanic stronghold of South Texas, Zapata County, population 14,179, had never been a political bellwether. It is a largely rural border community on a narrow stretch of the Rio Grande between Laredo and McAllen, home to oil-field workers and one of the highest poverty rates in Texas.- Advertisement – Mitt Romney lost Zapata County in 2012 by 43 percentage points. Donald J. Trump lost it in 2016 by 33. Ted Cruz lost it in 2018 by 26. On Tuesday, President Trump reversed many years of political history, including his own, and won Zapata County by 5 percentage points. “Why should I apologize for it? I’m not going to apologize anymore. Just because the president wants people to come into the country the right way, it doesn’t make him a racist. He’s not a racist and neither am I.”- Advertisement – Mexican-American families have called Brownsville, McAllen, Edinburg and other Rio Grande Valley cities home not for years but for generations. They identify with their Mexican roots just across the river but identify just as strongly with America. At the formal southern line of the nation, patriotism intensifies, and many an American flag waves in yards and on porches. Young Mexican-American men and women eagerly sign up to become Border Patrol agents. Often, their older relatives and neighbors worked for Border Patrol, and they are proud to do so, too, ignoring the perception of the agency among immigrant families elsewhere in the country. Many Trump voters in Zapata know one another, and they have formed an unofficial booster club and support group. It includes Ricardo Ramirez, 51, the president of a local bank branch, and Jack Moore, 45, an oil-field construction worker who said the Democrats of 50 years ago “are not the same Democrats today.”center_img These working-class and middle-class Mexican-Americans feel compassion for the Central American migrants who have been flooding the border off and on since 2014. Volunteering at migrant shelters and donating clothes and food have become Valley traditions. But many view those migrants as outsiders. The Hispanic migrant in a shelter and the Hispanic longtime Valley resident are culturally and economically disconnected. Texas is more politically and culturally complex than any one poll or election can capture. There were Houston oil-and-gas workers who voted for Mr. Trump, but many in the industry voted for Mr. Biden. There were longtime Democrats who, on the same ballot, voted for Mr. Biden and Mr. Cornyn. The president may have won Zapata County, but Mr. Cornyn lost it.If there is any one force determining how Texans vote, it is neither party nor politics. It is something that resists party labels but has helped transform Texas from a place to a cause — an ideology disguised as a brand disguised as a state. It is a cliché to say Texas is filled with mavericks, but the whole notion of mavericks belongs uniquely to Texas — the word comes from the surname of a Texas rancher and lawyer who left his calves unbranded in the late 1800s, Samuel A. Maverick.At first glance, Mr. Biden’s support in most of South Texas appears solid. He carried all four of the counties that make up the Rio Grande Valley region, next door to Zapata County. But a closer look reveals the emerging Democratic challenge on the border. Mr. Trump broadened his support in all four, plus in other border counties. In one of those communities, rural Starr County, Mrs. Clinton won in 2016 by 60 percentage points. On Tuesday, Mr. Biden carried it by just five.South Texas has long been a place where a lot of people are politically liberal but culturally conservative. The flipping of Zapata County was one of many Republican victories in a state that Mr. Trump carried. But it stunned Democrats and reflected their enduring struggle in the country’s largest conservative-led state. Not only do Democrats have a problem surging forward, they may be going backward in places.“When I was running, I’d get 85 percent in Zapata County — and Trump carried it,” said Garry Mauro, 72, a Democrat and former state land commissioner who was the chairman of the Hillary Clinton campaign in Texas in 2016. “The idea that Trump, who has been so overtly racist about Hispanics in particular, was able to do so well has got to be a failure of our party not having a message.”In the postelection aftermath, a changing Texas remained largely unchanged.- Advertisement – Updated Nov. 7, 2020, 4:37 a.m. ET “When I would tell people I helped a friend sell air fresheners in the shape of Trump’s head, I would apologize because I supported Trump,” said Anna Holcomb, 55, a Latina and former oil-field administrative assistant who lives in Zapata, the county seat. Mr. Trump’s support in that context was not surprising.“I believe that many Mexican-Americans who ordinarily vote Democratic are attracted to his personality,” said State Senator Judith Zaffirini, a Democrat who is Mexican-American and whose district includes Zapata County. “He’s very strong here. I don’t find him appealing but I’m fascinated by his appeal to so many Texans.”The town of Zapata lies along five traffic lights on Highway 83.Halloween decorations, hay bales and pumpkins were still up on a highway plaza in the aftermath of the election this week. Payday loan, auto parts and pawn shops outnumber gas stations and restaurants. The gentle western slope down to the Rio Grande gives residents spectacular sunsets and views of Mexico. In town and on the more rural roads around the county, where Border Patrol agents can be seen on hilltops gazing through binoculars across the river, there were an equal number of Trump signs and Biden signs.Two of the few orchestrated Trump events in Zapata happened in September, when stickers and signs were handed out at a local restaurant and a “Trump Train” caravan rode through town.But they did not draw huge crowds, and even now, some people who supported him said they feared retaliation for speaking out.last_img read more