Friday, 27 September 2013

“There is no workplace on earth quite like the cast-house of a blast furnace

“There is no workplace on earth quite like the cast-house of a blast furnace. Thirty miles west of here, the claustrophobic blackness of the coalpit was familiar to thousands. Thirty miles to the east, the trawlermen set out to dare the lashing grey hell of wintry seas. Here between, the hell-pit is almost literal”. Ex-Scunthorpe Steel Worker
Raw steel production decreased 1.5% worldwide last month, falling from 132.3 million metric tons in July to 130.35 million metric tons during August. The weakening was driven by declines in major industrial markets, especially the European Union, but also in Japan and the U.S.
This is obviously, not a good time for the world steel industry in the general sense, and as a former steelworker myself now living in self imposed exile in Canning Town East London, my thoughts are often with the people, the community once my home town Scunthorpe, an industrial garden town was the town slogan, as the town was often on the receiving end of many a comedians banter and jokes.

I can only tell you that I have seen thousands of jobs go from Scunthorpe Steel Works (fell from 27,000 at its height to around 4,500) since I left school in the early 70s, when I was a boy I remember that everyone’s dad worked on the ‘works’ as we use to call it, so from thousands to just a few thousand steelworkers today, the town has taken a hammering, to top all that off our own Labour MP in the last parliament was convicted of fiddling his expenses, by flipping his two homes about or something like that, and convicted, then sent to the penitentiary; so you can see the towns not been having a good time of it lately. And now there is a real fear that the last few remaining thousand steelworkers jobs and if not the future of steelmaking, production in this country may be coming to a close, this is something that I would never have dreamt of in my wildest nightmare. The Long Products Director, Jon Bolton of Tata steel issued a worrying bulletin to staff warning that a critical point has been reached in the division’s future and that it is imperative that a profit is delivered in the next six months. The bulletin goes on to say “Our plan to deliver profit isn’t just about cutting costs. It’s about improving our processes and minimising unnecessary waste in the business so that we can be more sustainable.  We need to make the most of our people, our assets and our products”.

Workers at the Scunthorpe site complained of the way in which the matter had been handled, some saying that briefings had sounded almost like an open ended threat, with the inference being sale or closure if targets are not met.

Whilst the predominance of the steelworks made Scunthorpe other industries in the town do exist. They include those associated with the steelworks such as engineering, along with food production, distribution and retailing – most of these now employing a large Polish and Slovak workforce, I found this strangely surprising when I found out, but its only the same as anywhere else, that of migrant labour being more flexible and preferable to the bosses who get away with more in the way of worker exploitation, the poor migrant only being too grateful for the work and the opportunity to make a living - shame really that its come to this but that’s capitalism at its worst when it plays workers off the wall like it was a game of squash.

The capitalist system is cruel and callous whilst doggedly holding on to lost memory, it forgets often that its the worker who always pays the highest price even with his or her’s life, this was brought home to me and always when I think

Thursday 4th November 2010 will be the 38th anniversary of the Queen Victoria Blast Furnace Disaster at Scunthorpe Steelworks, 11 men were killed when an explosion occurred in the early hours of that fateful day in 1975.

The Blast Furnaces at Scunthorpe are known as The Four Queens of Ironmaking, namely Mary, Bess, Anne and Vicky. It was on Vicky that the disaster would occur.

Molten Iron was poured into torpedoes ready to be transported via rail to other areas of the Steelworks.
Torpedoes were a relatively new piece of equipment in the past open top ladles had been used.
There had recently been a spate of cooling water leaks due to copper plugs having been replaced with steel ones which expanded at a different rate to the surrounding copper.
This would allow water to enter the torpedo on top of the molten Iron. Steam built up within the torpedo building up a pressure that would prove to be catastrophic.
All of this could have been dealt with but having become aware of the leak the decision was made to move the torpedo instead of allowing its contents to cool.
The molten Iron exploded covering the surrounding area with a deadly shower of molten metal.
There were 23 men in the direct vicinity when the explosion occurred. Four died instantly and seven others were to die later in hospital.
The decisions taken by the men present were nonetheless rational and blameless. All their experience up to that time suggested that the ladle could be safely moved away from the still-flowing water stream, and that leaving it in place was a more dangerous and of course ultimately a very costly alternative.
“Few people guess what molten iron is like. They expect something like the familiar depiction of lava, angry red and viscous. In reality, the metal is a blistering yellow-white, too bright to look at. And it flows with the mobility of water, only with seven times the density.
When the tap-hole is opened, it streams down the runner and thunders into the ladle below with an energy that demands respect.” Ex-Scunthorpe Steel Worker
The disaster occurred just over a year after the Nypro explosion at Flixborough seven miles from the town. This explosion killed 28 men and flattened surrounding houses.  

These two disasters have always been played over and over in my mind time and again, I ask why do we the workers pay the greatest price for man’s obsession with money and the accumulation of wealth, it’s the same as asking why do more workers die in war than owners of the means of production. And then it gets harder, when I ask why do we allow this - why are we still their slaves?

Many thanks to: The Scunthorpe Independent News

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