True as steel: improving safety in a dangerous sector

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From the new buildings in our cities or the scissors that cut our hair, it is difficult to find aspects of our lives not touched by products made of steel. It has taken a long time to change this huge, varied and traditionally-dangerous sector into a highly automated and safer one. The rate of injuries is coming down, but leadership is vital to continue the trend.

Steel is everywhere in our daily lives. It provides us with energy, food, shelter, security and transport; from food cans, kitchen appliances, safety equipment to cars, planes and vessels and even our computers (approximately 25% of your average computer is made of steel). Steel can be re-used over and over again and is also 100% recyclable without loss of quality.

Over the years, significant improvements in quality and strength have been made for every new generation of products or applications. If the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco were to be built today, it would require only half of the 83,000 tonnes of steel used in 1937 and therefore would be half the weight. Car bodies now use Advanced High Strength Steel (AHSS) and weigh up to 35% less than those made with conventional steel.

The steel industry directly employs more than 2m people worldwide, with a further 2m contractors and an additional 4m people in supporting industries. But considering steel’s position as the key product supplier to industries such as automotive, construction, transport, power and machine goods, the steel industry is at the source of employment for more than 50m people.

In the past steelmaking was considered a dangerous process and accidents were thought to be inevitable. Today the industry spends more than €12bn globally every year on improving the manufacturing process, new product development and technology and, as a result, it is today a highly automated industry with most manual handling, heavy lifting and many operational activities mechanised. This has removed staff exposure to hazards and reduced safety risks in the working environment.

The safety reports received by the World Steel Association (worldsteel) show that the safety performance of the industry has improved significantly over the past 10 years, from a lost time injury frequency rate (LTIFR) of 4.5 in 2006 to 1.4 in 2012. Levels of injuries are coming down all around the world. Nonetheless, the situation remains that people are still being injured unnecessarily and businesses lose financial and human resources as well as equipment and production time.

Each incident can be avoided and industry leaders think that continuous improvement in safety is the responsibility of the management teams, which should make sure measures are in place to manage the risks that cause injuries and employees are trained to carry out their jobs safely.  

There is no area, process or type of work that cannot be managed in a way that prevents injuries. Safety and health in any situation requires a permanent commitment from everyone. Most importantly, it requires relentless leadership and commitment from the entire management team, which needs to develop the culture in which safety and health is the number one priority and must not be compromised over any other business parameter.

There is very strong evidence around the world that the safest steel companies are also excellent in other aspects of their operations, including quality, process safety, employee motivation and financial performance. Many steel companies are improving their safety and health performance and some business areas have gone without lost time injuries or fatalities for many years. The most successful steel companies are also the safest.

Safety and health performance 
Every year worldsteel conducts a safety survey which provides key safety information for the steel industry. The findings, practices and improvements are shared with its member companies. This allows them to compare and manage their safety performance and show their commitment to a safe working environment for all employees and contractors. One of the measures used to track safety performance is the lost time injury frequency rate. The LTIFR shows the total number of lost time injuries per million hours worked.

Although the steel industry has seen a significant reduction in the rate of injuries since 2006 and the average lost time injury frequency rate has reduced by 50% in the last five years, the goal remains to create an injury-free, illness-free and healthy workplace.

Steel Safety Day
In 2014 worldsteel initiated an industry-wide safety audit. This initiative, called Steel Safety Day, was held on 28 April, coinciding with the World Day for Safety and Health at Work, held by the International Labour Organisation. The audit focused on identifying the main hazards causing serious safety incidents within the steel industry and allowed members to set up an action plan to manage those hazards and risks for each site.

Worldsteel requested all its members, their service providers and all related organisations within the steel industry to carry out an audit on the five main causes of safety incidents in all plants around the world. Over 500,000 people, both employees and service providers, were involved.

Main risks and hazards
The first causes of serious safety incidents and the preventative measures that should be implemented are:

  • Moving machinery – before any machinery is cleaned, serviced or adjusted all sources of energy, including gravity, must be isolated, locked or pinned to prevent movement
  • Falling from height – training should be provided on how to use protective equipment and work safely at height, and take steps to ensure the procedures are followed
  • Falling objects – measures must be taken to prevent objects from falling and all people should be evacuated from areas where this is a possibility
  • Asphyxiation or gassing – people must be trained to ensure they can test for and eliminate dangerous gasses in confined spaces
  • Cranes – daily checks must be carried out on cranes before use to ensure reliable condition and operation.

Safety principles
The Safety and Health Committee of the World Steel Association has created a set of principles, based on the collective experience, knowledge, company policies and values of its members. Through the adoption of these principles, worldsteel member companies all over the world have the foundation for creating a safe and healthy work environment for everyone who works in the industry. The principles are:

  • All injuries and work-related illness can and must be prevented
  • Management is responsible and accountable for safety and health performance
  • Employee engagement and training is essential
  • Working safely is a condition of employment
  • Excellence in safety and health supports excellent business results
  • Safety and health must be integrated in all business-management processes.

The Safety and Health Excellence recognition programme
In 2008, worldsteel launched a Safety and Health Excellence recognition programme to identify and honour the efforts made by steel companies. The recognition has been designed to further encourage and support the member companies’ pursuit of ‘zero’; an injury-free, illness-free and healthy workplace. The submissions must also be transferable within the industry.

The programme started with 23 submissions and in 2014 worldsteel received 38 submissions. Three companies were recognised for their excellent improvements last year. Each practice has been successfully introduced into the workplace and has had a clear impact on the company’s safety performance.

Safety alerts
Safety alerts is a communications system within worldsteel’s membership extranet where safety incidents are notified and reports are shared. The reports contain incident information, including the cause of the incident with details and key learnings. This helps members to identify incidents that may have a global impact as best practices are transferred, equipment is standardised or a new major hazard is identified. This enables members to take advantage of the best practices already implemented by others to avoid the reoccurrence of similar incidents on their sites.

Sharing information on the causes of serious incidents represents a learning opportunity and allows the prevention of the same or similar incidents at other sites or companies. Knowledge of incidents, however, is only the first step. To have a meaningful effect, company leaders must immediately act on the information by auditing their own plants and sites for similar hazards and take the necessary actions to prevent a repeat occurrence. Managers must also be held accountable for the implementation of the mitigating actions to ensure the risks are managed.

Incident and knowledge sharing and learning can never stop, both within an organisation, across the industry and outside worldsteel membership. Worldsteel encourages involvement on safety and health initiatives across the industry, both with members and non-members, and also engages with other industries such as oil and gas, cement and aluminium on this topic for wider sharing and learning.

All injuries and work-related illness can and must be prevented. Steel companies must continue to reinforce safety behaviour, by leading the way and worldsteel encourages companies with a high incident rate to start along the road towards a zero-accident environment.

Henk Reimink is director of safety, technology and environment at the World Steel Association



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