Cost cuts link with steel tragedy

Allegations that cost-cutting measures have compromised safety at Corus’s steel plants were made this week, after a blast furnace at Port Talbot exploded killing three and leaving five critically injured.

South Wales politicians have called on the Health and Safety Executive to look into the effects of the company’s restructuring exercise on its maintenance programme, after it came to light that some of the workforce were worried about the blast furnace before it exploded on Thursday.

The three men died as a result of a breakout, when the number five blast furnace blew apart, showering them with molten metal. The explosion has now become the subject of a joint police and Health and Safety Executive investigation.

Ray Davies, a Labour councillor for Caerphilly County Council who worked in the steel industry from 1950 until 1990 and was responsible for relining blast furnaces, said many of his former colleagues were concerned about safety.

The company was this week fined £300,000 for an explosion at its Llanwern plant last year, which left a worker paralysed.

The Port Talbot explosion prompted Davies to write to the Health and Safety Executive, asking them to pay particular attention to the ‘cost-cutting culture’ at the plants, and the maintenance record of the number five blast furnace. ‘In my mind there is absolutely no doubt that cost cutting did play a part,’ he told The Engineer.Corus announced at the beginning of the year that it was implementing a series of cost-cutting measures, including making 6,000 workers redundant, after revealing it was losing more than £1m a day.

Davies said fierce competition in the sector meant the number of employees was ‘cut to the quick’ between 1980 and 1990, and when the company was again hit recently by over-capacity in the global steel industry, that further cuts were inevitable. ‘It is tragic that people have died, and it is easy to be wise after the event,’ said Davies, ‘but there were many people who have been through the industry and were wise before the event, and could see it coming.’

Conservative Welsh Assembly member Alun Cairns, whose father works at the Port Talbot plant, said the furnace had become a talking point among workers in the few weeks before the explosion, as they did not feel it could last until it was next due to be relined. Workers could recall several breakouts over the past five years, he said. ‘We want a complete investigation, not only into this explosion, but also into the reported history of furnace number five,’ he said.

Safety concerns

Janet Davies, Plaid Cymru assembly member for South Wales West, said workers had raised concerns 18 months ago about maintenance at the works, particularly the number five furnace which was due for relining and on which they were having to do a number of repairs.

She raised the issue with Welsh first minister Rhodri Morgan in March 2000, who was then given assurances from Corus that the furnace did not need relining.

Workers have also come forward this week to tell Ms Davies the coke ovens at the site have not been well maintained, in this instance causing production problems rather than safety concerns. ‘In Port Talbot there are tremendous fears about losing heavy steel production, so I honestly do not think that people would raise these issues unless they were very concerned,’ she said.

There was speculation this week the explosion may have been caused by a water leak touching molten metal, causing an explosive burst of steam. ‘People have been saying water was leaking, and that there was an enormous amount of water around,’ Davies said.

A spokesman for Corus denied that the furnace needed relining. ‘We have very recently carried out a thorough review of number five blast furnace, and found it had been taken very good care of, and would not need a reline until 2005.’

Maintenance is carried out on the furnaces and plants on a continuous basis, he said. ‘Whatever happened inside the furnace was unprecedented – we have not seen the like of it anywhere. So it would not seem appropriate to be linking that to maintenance. It was an accident, and we do not know the cause of it yet.’

Leak investigation

The Health and Safety Executive, the police and Corus have set up investigations to uncover the cause of the blast inside the furnace. A spokeswoman for the HSE said rumours of a water leak in the days before the explosion were likely to be investigated.

The allegations come in the same week that Corus was fined, following a serious accident at its Llanwern plant last year. The steel company was found guilty of ‘gross failure’, after a worker at the plant was paralysed from the chest down when an explosion caused a large piece of red-hot slag to knock him off a scaffolding ladder, breaking his spine.

The blast was caused by a water leak coming into contact with the slag. Managers at the firm had failed to respond to warnings that the water leak was dangerous, the court found.

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