Recollections of Health and Safety in the Steel Industry

5 min read

This page was created as part of our contribution to the ‘Social Worlds of Steel’ project’s 2020 Twitter conference ‘Shaped by Steel’. You can find all the talks by following the hashtag #SWOS20

WARNING: the audio clips and transcripts below include descriptions of serious and sometimes fatal accidents in the steelworks. They are not suitable for young children in particular.

Audio Clip 1

John Baird started his career in a Motherwell wagonworks at the age of 14 in 1943 before getting at job at Colvilles’ Dalzell Steel Works two years later. When the Ravenscraig Works was established in the late 1950s Mr Baird got the job of operating the Slabbing Mill and he rolled the first slab in March 1962. The slabbing mill rolled re-heated steel ingots from the furnaces and turned them into slabs which would then go on to the strip mill.

Here Mr Baird describes a non-fatal crane accident shortly after the mill opened and discusses how health and safety improved:

John Baird on a crane accident at Ravenscraig Works.

Transcript:

Well Health and Safety didn’t come in until Nineteen Seventy-Four. Now we’d been operating… the steelworks is a dangerous place for anybody that is not aware of what’s going on round about him. You had to keep your eyes open and be aware of the noise because it is a noisy place, but somehow or other when you spoke to each other you didn’t feel you were raising your voice, it became a case of lip-reading in a lot of things. Some things you didn’t want to hear [laughing] and were better not lip-reading but, all-in-all it was a place where people were aware of the dangers and they were…ah, there were one or two incidents, one I remember, I recall vividly because it was, ah almost a fatality. A crane was bringing an ingot out of a furnace when the cabin which the operator sits in moved sideways over the furnace, picks the ingot up and moves it out. He had just come out of the area of the furnace when the cabin came off the crane and fell twenty feet to the ground. He was not killed but he was very fortunate, er and at point they then checked all the cranes and found that the bolts securing the cabin to the main-frame should have been changed and rivets placed in place of the bolts but that had been overlooked and every crane was the same. So we were very fortunate, there was ten seconds between that crane falling into the furnace with the ingots in it and where it fell, just outside of the area of the furnace, so everybody spoke about that, that was a great topic at that time… [INTERVIEWER: When was that, was that Nineteen Sixties?] Nineteen Sixty- I think it would be Nineteen Sixty-Four, uh Nineteen Sixty-Three or Sixty-Four we w… we had only been for a matter of a year or two when that happened. The constant movement of the cranes had shaken the bolt so that it had worn through and it snapped. One snaps, the strain of the other becomes progressive. Eventually all [?they] snapped and the whole cabin with the man inside, operator inside dropped to the ground. If it had dropped ten seconds earlier he would have been inside the furnace. Willie Neill, I’ll never forget Willie Neill, that was his name [laughing]. Willie, Willie’s saving grace was that he was a big lad and he was secure in the seat and the thing is that that saved him from being thrown about as much as he would have been if he was like a slim lad, he’d have [been] thrown out of the cabin. But he was secure in his seat – they don’t have belts on them and, and at that point, as I said health and safety was not the thing that it is today. I mean there was a lot of things happened, you knew they were dangerous, you knew they were silly to do it but we still did it. If it was a shortcut that saved us  ten minutes we did it, we knew we shouldn’t but Health and Safety come in and of course we had Health and Safety Officers then, so everything improved greatly.

Audio Clip 2

Alex Torrance worked as an electrician on the Ravenscraig Strip Mill from its opening in 1962 until the 1980s. The Strip Mill rolled slabs produced by the Slabbing Mill. In this clip Mr Torrance describes an horrific accident when a stack of steel slabs collapsed, crushing a man. He tells of two other fatal accidents, one at the Coilers (at the far end of the Strip Mill) and another in the Roll Shop. An accident in which Mr Torrance himself fell and was injured in a stair collapse was recorded as an ‘Act of God’. Warning: this clip and the following transcript contain distressing content:

Alex Torrance describes three fatal accidents at Ravenscraig Steel Works.

Transcript:

People were killed. Er, one instance which was really early on in the strip mill where slabs were piled-up in what was called ‘rucks’ of slabs and due to vibration one of the rucks fell and a man was pinned from waist-down in below a twenty ton slab. Obviously there were nothing we could do for him, er… Willie Leitch was the Mechanical Foreman and he came along and a lot of the nurses were there and Willie gave him what you see in the films, a last cigarette type thing. While he was having the cigarette Willie shouted the cran a come… cran to come along and the magnet was lowered, lifted the slab off and that was the guy away. Another instance happened at the coilers where Alex Heard, I think his name was, was sitting on the mandrel for the, doing repairs on the mandrel. When the mandrel started-up he got lashed round about the coiler. He was killed. Er, when I was at the coilers I was day shift and late… just as a I was leaving there was a fault come on one of the Waldrich grinding machines in the roll shop. The roll shop had its own Maintenance Electrician called Wal… Watson Heardman ah, but four o’ clock Watson had, Watson had to finish and what had happened after he had left was the Coiler Electrician then went to any repairs that needed done in the roll shop. The man who let me away at two o’ clock was a guy called Alex L[?] who had just come back from Canada, ah had a young family and he was only there about six weeks. He was only about five feet six tall so he went to this breakdown that was passed-on from Watson Heardman in the roll shop and you can imagine the shock I got the next morning when a [was] told that Alex was dead. He’d stood up onto the edge of the electrical panel, couldn’t reach the fuses at the top and actually fell in across the live buzz bars and was electrocuted. So that was the shock I got the next morning when I come in. As I said, other people had other injuries, again at the Coilers I remember someone, a hydraulic hose broke and smashed his face. He recovered alright but he bore the scars for a long while. Myself, I ended-up one time with broken ribs because a plate was missing, they were cooling… I was actually checking rollers to see if they were jammed and I was walking along the table and a plate had been removed and, to cool the bed of the, the rollers and the plates they had actually put s… water on to cool them so there was quite a bit of steam and I stepped over a roller and the plate was missing and I fell onto the next roller and broke my ribs. Er, another time during a maintenance period the… we needed slings to change the armature of one of the six… Six-Stand motors [laughs] and the team of us went to get the slings which were down in a basement. We hooked the armature at the top of the stair, we hooked the slings onto the crane, hoisted them up, the sling swung, caught the bottom of the stairway, pulled it down and I fell twenty feet. I smashed all my shoulder and ended-up at the Law Hospital. Er… [INTERVIEW: The…] It was an Act of God as they said, there were no-one to blame because they did the… there were nothing wrong with any of the crane, there were nothing… everybody went through their procedures okay, er it was put down as er just an Act of God.

Audio Clip 3

Jack Smith spent 18 years as a contractor at Ravenscraig from the mid-1970s. He started at the ‘Craig around the time of the Health & Safety at Work Act and here discusses the culture at the time. PPE was issued but there was a strong reliance on personal responsibility:

Jack Smith on Health & Safety at Ravenscraig.

Transcript:

My time there, I don’t think there was a fatality, I don’t think there was a fatality, um but there was always a very serious potential for it, um and everyone, everyone was aware of that so as I said there was no, no carry-on, no  nonsense, um, ah… [INTERVIEWER: So what kind of protective gear did you have to wear?] Uh, well it was a, it was a flame proof jacket, a black flame-… a sort of donkey jacket but with special material [?for overheating] and that’s what it was, that and just ordinary overalls and a hard hat and gloves, you had to have gloves. But, but that was it, but that’s going back, when I [?] in there, I think it was seventy-three or four the Health & Safety at Work Act had just been introduced, it, it hadn’t permeated from eh government status and been signed in as law and coming down into works [unclear] and that, it hadn’t permeated its way down. So it was early, [laughs] early days for health and safety and some of the things that went on were shocking and, and when I left Ravenscraig and went, actually within the company I was with, I became the Health and Safety Adviser, in latter years when I look back on it and think [whistles] ooh, wow… [INTERVIEWER: What sort of things used to happen?] Er, the movement of, a see if it [?] taken us through to the strip mill where the, the strip steel was going through at a great rate, you know, um, er… and it was red-hot, the movement of slabs to the re-heating furnace, there were, um, it was cranes with grabs who moved them, um on occasion I did see that when they slipped and they come crashing down, no so it was a case of people knew to keep out the way, no but there were no notices saying ‘no pedestrians here when this ladle’s passing’ or you know when the cranes are, no, no labels like that and signs saying ‘do this’, it was just, ah it was a given that you would eh, you knew the situation, so you… it was, it was self-protection actually. You know, you were self-governing, [unclear] So I would say about sixty or seventy percent was about the movement of hot metal and making steel, taking it from the, the blast furnace where it was just pig iron going in and getting made into, going through the melting shop where it was melting-down, to the BOS plant, to the strip mill, the re-heating furn… everywhere, the ConCast, everything like that, it was all about moving red-hot metal, molten metal, you know so you had to be very, very, very careful, um… Traffic within Ravenscraig at times could be a wee bit hairy, just because of the number of people who were in there, the contractors and the fact that people sometimes didn’t realise that these transporters were coming down with the, the hot metal, you know and some people took a wee bit incredible chances like, you know [clears throat] when these transporters with the, the vats of hot metal, molten metal were on the road everyone just got off the road and gave them a clear way, undertand… ’cause there was, off a know a big vat of molten metal going down, you had to give a… and these big transporters it wasn’t like driving a, you know a Ford Fiesta you could, chk chk, jink in and out, you know? They were huge, big vehicles, huge big vehicles so um, traffic in itself was another thing, but working in it people um, understood the risks. You couldn’t avoid the risks, the risks were always there so people had to learn to manage the risks as best they could and a lot about it was self-protection, you know experience uh, was a great thing.

Audio Clip 4

John Baird recalled a fatal accident resulting from an electrical cable being repeatedly used as a means of crossing a puddle. This was before the 1974 Act:

John Baird on shortcuts taken and a fatal accident.

Transcript:

You should have used two men to pick up something and one man would do it while the other guy was probably skiving somewhere, but he would pick it up if it’s [?for] a danger of perhaps knocking your back out or getting your hands cut and I remember another serious incident where the lad died. We had Electricians and we had Electricians’ Mates and one of the Electricians’ Mates as in a small bothy, a small hut and he was in between jobs so he was doing what he normally did, reading a paper or something like that, havin’ a smoke. But, the rain was on and that’s important part of the fact that the rain was on. When he came out of the hut there was a large puddle in front of the hut and to get over the puddle they used to sling… to swing on a cable that led into the hut with the power. You used to swing on that to get over the thing and one day one of the Mates went over, he come out of the hut, took a hold of the cable to swing over and it had shortened because the cable had worn down where it was all constantly getting used by people taking a, a short-cut across the puddle and he was electrocuted, which was a very, very sad time at that happened, you know? So again, these things have all been updated that we don’t get hanging cables which people can swing on. So, it was a good thing that we brought in Health and Safety.

Audio Clip 5

Alex McGowan worked at Ravenscraig, Hallside and Clyde Alloy (the latter two being part of BSC’s Special Steels division) before embarking on a 30-year career in health and safety. Mr McGowan considered himself fortunate to have left the industry in his early thirties given the physical toll the work exacted:

Alex McGowan on the physical toll of working in the steel industry.

Transcript:

If I was working on the furnace I could lose seven pounds in just fluid right enough, you know? But er, you lose seven pounds in a day, just with the work that you were involved in, and I was fortunate I think that I left the steel industry when I was thirty-three. And they were heavy, heavy jobs and I was, I think really lucky that I managed to get out, er before I started wearing-out all my joints and everything like that. ‘Cause when I look back on it now, at that time there were, once you got to about fifties, fifty-five, all the guys that age were on light jobs, you know there was little-, wee niches found for them and, ah because of the, they werenae fit anymore, because of the, the conditions and the, the hard work that they were involved in and then once the Eighties come in that all started to change and there were no more light jobs and all of a sudden anybody over fifty-five was taking a redundancy because you get two years’ wages at that time, you know? So it was a good incentive, both I suppose for the guys to get out and also the company to get rid of all the sort of older men that was in it, you know? I mean, you think now fifty-five, it’s not old but a lot of these guys were old at fifty-five. [? I think] you can relate it now to the sorta, the construction industry, you know the same sort of thing? When guys are getting to their mid-fifties they’re worn-out, you know? So, yeah health and safety’s changed a tremendous amount.

Audio Clip 6

Alex McGowan recalled the workers on the rolling mills at British Steel’s Craigneuk Works (part of the Special Steels Division, formerly Clyde Alloy):

Alex McGowan on the physical work of the rolling mill workers.

Transcript:

In Number One Mill they did the heavy bars. Er, and they were all hand-operated. And they guys were, I mean they must have been really physically fit to sorta like, once the bar was coming over the top of the rolls they would pick it up with the tongs, pull it back and then shove it through. Er, and what they used to do sometimes, they used to try and catch each other out. So it, they normally had it perfectly timed so as, as the guy was putting his, his bar in at the bottom rail, as soon as that, the last that went through the roll, the other one come over the top. And what they would sometimes do is they would deliberately get themself out of synch, so that as the guy was still putting his roll through, his bar through the other one was coming over the top, you know? So he [laughing] had to be pretty quick in moving about, you know? And they used to, I mean protective equipment for them basically, they used to wear like sackcloth leggings, they would make, and pin then onto the front of their trousers to act in a wee bit of heat protection. And the boots that they had, they would cut bits of leather and stick them where the tongues were, so there were about four or fives layers of leather on the top of their foot and that gave them a wee bit of protection between the heat and, you know possibly getting burned, you know?

Audio Clip 7

Frank Shannon worked at Dalzell Steel Works in Motherwell for 26 years and was a union Branch Secretary. Here he recalls the role that the unions played in improving safety for workers:

Frank Shannon on trades union involvement in safety.

Transcript:

[INTERVIEWER: You were talking about health and safety there, can you give some examples of [the] sort of things the union pushed through?] W- I remember the engineers and they took- they had the long hair if you remember that, way back in the Beatles’ time? They had to wear hair nets in case they [unclear], they would get caught. I mean we fought to get the helmets, the boots, ’cause in the steel industry you [?didn’t] want anything dropping on your feet. These were things that was done through [INTERVIEWER: Uh-huh] local negotiation with the management a- and through the trade union. [INTERVIEWER: Uh-huh. Were um, were things like, er boots always supplied by the management then?] Well, w- no eh you paid so much and what they did, uh, I only can speak about Dalzell [clears throat] if you [? wanted/were for] boots and things like that it would come off your wages, you paid so much and eventually it was customary, the company gave you them.

Audio Clip 8

Alex Torrance recalled improvements made as a result of the Health & Safety Committees at Ravenscraig but again emphasised that it was up to workers whether they used any PPE given:

Alex Torrance on Health & Safety Committees at Ravenscraig.

Transcript:

[INTERVIEWER: Would you say that health and safety got any better as time went on, or-?] Oh yes, health and safety did get a lot better, but it was up to the men themselves, eh whether they used it or not. I mean we ended-up with eh, ear muffs and ear plugs and things like that because of the noise and er, a- you’ve got a copy of, of the survey that, that I gave you for the noise levels, er [INTERVIEWER: So did you not have that when you started then?] No, there was nothing like that. I was actually a Safety Representative for the union. A- that was a- another course I went on, for er, because of the Health and Safety. Er, we actually lai-, I was involved in making up the, eh all the materials that were used, Hazardous Materials and we filed all that and got all the pamphlets issued, we run courses on that, er we discussed various things at safety levels, about the noise, the dust, we did improvements on it, eh especially up in the Coke Ovens. Er, although each, each, although each department in the work had their own Safety Committee, every, every three months or two months, every two months we had a general meeting with uh, all the Safety Committees together, representatives from all the Safety Committees with senior management and discussed various things and one of the ones was er, helmets that supplied their own oxygen-type thing to the guys in the Coke Ovens which made a big difference but was up to the guys themselves whether they, they used it properly or not. [INTERVIEWER: So when did they come in, was that in the Nineteen Sixties or-?] Oh no that, they didn’t come in until mid-Seventies, they didn’t come in until the mid-Seventies. Basically, basically all you got was a pair of safety boots and a safety helmet and a pair of gloves and that was, that was it. Your safety boots were renewed ever- every six months. Ah and as I say, they discovered, I think they discovered once that you painted, if you painted or, or drew on your safety helmet, the type of safety helmet it was at that time, that actually weakened the structure of the safety helmets so they were all withdrawn and new ones issued. Ah, and as I say a lot of improvements were made through the Safety Committees regarding safety, not just, not just eh in the conditions but also in the procedures, in the way things had to be done. So er, I was involved in quite a lot of that.

Audio Clip 9

Dorothy Macready worked in the offices at Ravenscraig from 1962 to 1976. Here Ms Macready recalls typing-up fatal accident reports, although she remembers only a few during her time there

Dorothy Macready on recording serious accidents.

Transcript:

There was a lot of accidents there, down in the plant but I don’t know whether it was [unclear] or whether it was [unclear] that’s, you worked in the steel industry and you were liable to have an accident [INTERVIEWER: Uh-huh] but serious accidents, none of the junior girls were allowed to type the reports, because some of them were obviously [INTERVIEWER: Uh-huh] pretty horrendous. It was only the senior girls who could type a fatal accident report [INTERVIEWER: Uh-huh], none of the junior girls were allowed to type it, it was only the senior girls and there, there weren’t that many, I think, um four or five I recall ever. We took it in turns [INTERVIEWER: Uh-huh], you know if you did this one last time I’ll do it this time, because it wasn’t nice.

Audio Clip 10

Alan Love started in the coke ovens as a 20 year-old. In hindsight he considered himself naive and wished he had worked on the steel side rather than the iron side. New recruits had to start at the bottom and that meant the coke ovens, where he stayed for 5 years.

Alan Love on conditions working on the Coke Ovens at Ravenscraig.

Transcript:

I began work er, in the Coke Ovens, ah and at that time I was probably quite naïve because anybody who had any aspirations in securing employment in Ravenscraig, eh were probably influenced by friends or family and were advised to try and get-, secure employment in the steel side. Eh, it was far cleaner, ah and a, in hindsight I would say that the people, ah the workers in the iron side eh of Ravenscraig really didnae get the credit that they deserved. The conditions that they worked under, the dust, the heat, especially in the summer months, ah and the fact that they worked through the winter and, eh ’til they left at night. We had to get showers, er and we probably had to shower for, for twenty to twenty-five, thirty minutes because we were black in coal dust in our hair, in our ears, in our eyes, the conditions were horrendous. So it didn’t come as any surprise, we learned quite quick, er a, about the Coke Ovens and, and the, the problems with the conditions er, and there was actually people at that time who I know went down, were interviewed, who got a job, who started, who went to the canteen and never returned and that was, that was the, the story behind the Coke Ovens, it was avoided like the, the plague. Er, but I secured employment there and the next, my next experience was, was bein’ asked to work night shift, er which was something new, totally new to me, er turning up, working during the night when the rest of Wishaw an’ Lanarkshire an’ everywhere else was asleep. Er, the only difference was you couldnae see the coal dust and the heat wasnae the same, er but it, a- again it was an experience and er, moving from working normal office hours to working continental shifts, day shift, back shift, er and night shift. And again, especially at night shift it was more dangerous because, you know what I mean working, er in some of the, the- er on top of the Coke Ovens battery where accidents could easily happen if there was an accident, er there really could be quite serious.

Audio Clip 11

Donald Oliver also began his working life on the Coke Ovens at Ravenscraig , this time in he 1980s. He recalled the consequences of workers rushing to finish their shift early. He also regarded one particularly unpleasant job as a kind of rite-of-passage leading to acceptance by his fellow workers. Mr Oliver recalled that the week before he started in 1983, three men had died at the top of a blast furnace.

Donald Oliver on working on the Coke Ovens and Sinter Plant at Ravenscraig.

Transcript:

The, the job I was employed on mostly in the shifts, they called it the Wharf and the coke come out the oven and it went into a thing called the Quencher and they put water on it to, to douse it with fire and then they, they dumped it in the slope, we opened the gates and they lift in on the conveyor belt and the system of conveyor belts took it over to the Blast Furnace. But eh, sometimes because they wanted everything done as quick as they could so they could get an early finish, they didnae put it under the water for as long as they shoulda done so, it was ehm, used to get hot ovens so there was hoses down there, so you, you were under time pressure all the time, because you couldnae afford to hang aboot and you couldnae put hot coke on the conveyor belt ’cause hot coke and rubber don’t mix very well. So, [INTERVIEWER: So you were quenching it as it came out then?] Aye well, what you had to dae to ke- to keep up was, you had to dae it steady, you couldnae do it fa-, too fast because then it fall off the belt and you had to clean it up, so you had to [?cut] the hose on it as it was come down, you know? We- Ah, the worst job I done, I was thinking about it on the way down and I wrote some stuff down, the worst job I done was we were cleaning drains eh chemical effluent and the, the, there a By-Products [INTERVIEWER: Oh yeah] and it was ehm, it was just no very nice at all. We were at that for, couple of months I think and there was, there was what, a dozen of us I think, starting? I think that there was people that didn’t like it and they were walking off and stuff like that, you know?And we had eh, [?what] heavy-duty gear on and then rubber cover-alls, Wellingtons and a big mask with a, an air tank on it. And we finished we had tae eh, hose each other down, but it didnae matter what you wore because you got a horrible taste in you mouth from this stuff anyway you know? And you’d wee shovels so they could fit in between the drains [unclear] that thin you know? There was just, By-Products was just- [INTERVIEWER: What sort of stuff was going through?] Ah it was just, it was just horrible. It was like, eh just like sludge you know? [coughs] I did that for a couple of months. Another job that, at the time er it wasn’t very pleasant but I saw it as a kind of, eh what’s the word, right-of-passage kind of thing where everybody accepts you after you’ve done it, you know, it was called the Retarder and it was in the Sinter Plant so you, when you make iron, when it goes in there’s a mixture of coke, sinter, iron ore and various other things and it goes up in a thing, goes into the blast furnace an’ eh every now and again the down days they got you to go into the, it, it was a, there was compartmentalised and in the wee bits you were bent double, so there’d be two or three in each section and you get, eh extra money, you get dirty money for doing this. But ehm, you were in for five minutes and out for five minutes and you just shovelled it through a grid but once everybody started shovelling you couldnae see ’cause of all the dust come up, you know? An’ you’d a, see the wee paper masks that folk wear when they’re spraying cars [?you wore them] with the big rubber mask over the top of it but, eh it just, it was that heavy you know an’ it got on, all in your ears an’ under there you’d be, look as if you’d eye-liner on, you know, an’ it like my hair was the colour o’ a, see an ash football park, an’ you’d tae, I had tae soak my hair about three times to get, get it out and you-, at the back of the showers there was a gutter running doon and you come up through [laughing] you just see all this red water coming down you know?

Audio Clip 12

Alex McGowan recalled the hazardous substances that workers would encounter, including asbestos. He reflected on how health and safety had changed in the 30 years since he worked in the steel industry:

Alex McGowan on working with hazardous substances.

Transcript:

Health and safety’s changed tremendously and I’ve been doing that job now [2016] for thirty years?, and just finished up about two weeks ago. So I mean it’s come on in leaps and bounds and, I mean another simple example is asbestos. I mean, when we used to cut the lagging off of pipes etc and things like that you would just hack away at it and if you wanted you could wear a Martindale mask which was just a, an aluminium frames that just fitted, light aluminium and you get these two wee pads. Then you could put the pads on this mask and that was supposedly to protect from dust and all sorts of things, you know. And it was only later that you realised that you werenae getting any protection at all from this, you know. And then when we worked in the, the By-products Plant, when you went into the, the pumps they were all steam-driven but they were, they were pumping benzene, zylene, toleen, which are all carcinogenic. All you did was, you worked in there ’til you felt a bit light-headed, then you come out for some fresh air an’ then you went back in again, you know? So, health and safety was really, it was quite primitive and that’s, what? Nineteen Seventies, Nineteen Eighties? It’s not that long ago, you know? I mean, you wouldn’t be allowed to do things like that now, you know? But that was just acceptable and that was the way it was, you know?

 

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