Sunday, May 3, 2009
By Eric Fleischauer
Love, safety, molten steel
Entering Nucor’s hot mill Wednesday, I began counting easy ways to die.
I’m not really that morbid, I just knew I was there because Nucor won an elite award for safety from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
I started counting when the truck with 6-foot tires and carrying 250 tons of scrap backed past me. That was the least of the hazards, but I stopped counting at 22, when 5,000 degree Fahrenheit flames leapt from a scrap furnace. The 15,000 degree graphite rod came later.
Star status achievement
Aspiring to safety in a steel mill is like aspiring to dryness in the middle of the Atlantic in a hurricane, but Nucor has not only aspired but met its aspirations.
OSHA recommended the company for VPP Star Status last week, and the Decatur plant will fly the VPP Star flag in a couple of months. Eight million worksites are in the United States, and only 2,100 achieve VPP Star status.
Not many winners are steel factories, and it’s no wonder.
Plant Manager Mike Lee clearly is committed to safety, but after speaking to a dozen or so employees — “teammates” at Nucor, and it’s not just a term — I found myself paying less attention to Lee.
At Nucor, safety spreads laterally through the ranks, not top-down. Make no mistake: That means management has done its job.
“We watch each other’s backs,” said Perry Buford, lead strand tender, as a several-thousand degree slab of orange steel flowed by. “That’s the biggest part. The guys on the floor are looking out for each other.”
That is as it should be, he continued.
“We spend as much time with each other as we do with our wives and families.”
Lee was my tour leader, and frequently I hung back so I could talk to steelworkers without his fire-or-promote influence. At one point, I did so after he effused, “I love you guys; can I say that?”
There was some eye-rolling as he walked elsewhere, so I tried to capitalize. “Nucor Steel, a place of love and safety,” I teased Mike Wallace, a mill technician.
He laughed, but then got serious.
“You say that in jest, but it’s not far off,” Wallace explained. “You really reach a level of comfort with each other here that’s unusual. You can’t do your job unless everyone else does his job, and you sure can’t do your job safely unless your teammates are being safe.”
Wallace recalled when the company brought in one of those touchy-feely counselors for an employee training session. She separated the steelworkers in two lines and told them to approach each other. They came nose-to-nose, and undermined her preplanned speech. She expected them to stop 3 feet from each other, triggering a talk on trust and comfort zones.
“Where we work,” Wallace said, “you can’t stop at 3 feet. Everyone develops that comfort zone pretty quickly.”
Don’t ignore the influence of management, though.
This is a tough time for the steel industry. In an earnings conference last week, Nucor Chief Executive Dan DiMicco said steel demand is “virtually nonexistent.” Unlike most companies facing similar problems, Nucor has avoided layoffs. But employees are taking a financial hit, because low production means low production bonuses.
This is a competitive bunch. Slash production at a plant with 685 workers used to maximizing output, and you have the potential for morale problems.
Lee managed to focus the competitive spirit on safety. Employee after employee described to me safety meetings that sounded more like pep rallies. As OSHA auditors watched, employees talked about their families at the same time they described safety procedures.
Earplugs in Iraq
One burly fellow talked about his son in Iraq. The other soldiers were giving the son a hard time, he understood from a letter, and he wanted to know why. The son explained that he always wore earplugs when they went near artillery.
“I’ve watched you wear those things all your life, Dad.”
And a bunch of guys with large chests and massive forearms — in front of OSHA and Lee and everyone — teared up. Strong men, yes, but smart enough to care for themselves and their families.
“It brought the team together,” said Lee of preparation for VPP Star status, which included an intense, weeklong audit. “The most important thing we do out here is work safely.”
‘Safety comes first’
Bryan Thornton, a pulpit operator, put it differently as he watched a control panel that tracked the temperature of the liquid core of a cooling slab.
“That’s 170 tons of molten steel coming toward us, and it’s not worth our health. Everyone’s safety comes first,” Thornton said. “There’s no job worth doing here if it’s not done safely.”
As Lee stands among his teammates, watching liquid steel pour from a furnace and feeling the dry heat parch his face from 20 yards away, the popping roar squelching conversation, I understand management’s role in Nucor safety. It’s about friendship.
Lee’s eyes glisten, maybe from the heat, as he looks over at me.
“This is where it happens,” he yells over the thunder. “Out here with these guys.”