This is a summary of the first exposure accident in December 1995, as I remember it.
Oh, how I would love to start with it was a cold, and stormy night. Yet it wasn’t. It was set to be a fairly ordinary December night, just a regular night shift at one of the steel mills in the city. It would start at 7PM and go on until the morning, yet it was special too. It was the last shift before what would work out to be a nice, long 10 day Christmas shutdown. Spirits were high and excitement for the coming days was simmering. It was looking like it would be a good night shift.
Yet, that night things changed. My life changed and the lives of 4 other employees changed as well. Of course we didn’t realize it then. Maybe we would have done something different or maybe not. Funny, I think everyone says something like that! The accident changed our lives, our interactions and had ramifications that we couldn’t even imagine.
Steel and the steel industry, Stelco and (now ArcelorMittal) Dofasco Inc., were at one time was the lifeblood of our community. Families were raised in the culture of steel, of hard work, of long hours and of a respect for the employer that made living a “good life” possible. Long ago the employer made a name for themselves as good corporate citizens and they did at one time really and truly cared about their employees. By the time I joined in the family tradition, things were changing and that culture was dying.
You see, I work in a local steel mill. ArcelorMittal Dofasco at that time was just Dofasco Inc. and I was working in the finishing area, on one of the temper mills. Basically, a big press that applies tons of pressure to steel to stretch it and give it the properties needed by the customer. We would alternate between two basic types of steel; one we would reduce in thickness and one that would just be tempered and shipped.
On this fateful December night we can into a shift that was beginning with a change from one type of steel to the other. The shutdown had begun and it was expected to be about four hours before we started up again. We spend a few minutes preparing for the rest of the shift. My job for the rest of the night was to be Inspector. It entailed being responsible for the customer’s demands for their order.
As we ran the first coil, it became apparent that something wasn’t right. It was the first time ever that I’ve seen foam coming out of the side walls of a coil of steel. White and frothy and dripping down over the mill exit end. As was the custom we prepared a ‘shape check.’ Basically taking off a couple of outside wraps and checking the steel. I felt the steel, the oily soapy film, smelt it, ran my hands through it and told the roller that this wasn’t going to be released. He insisted that soap from the wash-down of the mill had caused the problem, so I allowed him to roll one more coil, to prove his point. Needless to say this next coil came out worse than the first. A cartoonish vision of suds covering every surface of steel would best be the scene when we finished rolling this coil. The mill shut down while the roller and assistant roller searched for an answer as to what was going on.
As the lab person and his trainee, sent the coil to be routed through Cleaning, we sat and talked about what would happen to the steel in such cases. The assistant roller came back to the desk and stated, “You won’t believe what he did. He hooked up the wrong tote.” This ‘wrong tote’ was hooked up to the oiling system at the front of the mill when it was used for another type of steel and . The oils are a mixture of rust inhibitors and other chemicals to protect the steel until it reaches the customer. We talked and suddenly the whole of the mill was enveloped in a white cloud. The assistant roller, lab person and trainee and I ran toward the mill to see what was happening and what we needed to do. We could see no cause for this cloud, a mild acrid smell filled the air, and yet it slowly began to fade.
The roller returned with food and looking around got ready to start the mill. The assistant roller stated that he was feeling very badly and was going to the Medical Department for attention. The roller furious at being delayed hollered for others to come and start the mill. The crane driver yelled to him that he had just had an accident, that he wasn’t feeling well and that he was also going to Medical. At the mention of an accident, no one dared start the mill. Those of us remaining, began to search for any information about the solution in the tote, Quaker Qwerl 598. A search of MSDS sheets was unsuccessful and call to the Poison Control Centre led us to seek medical attention. By the time the lab person, his trainee and I went to wait for the company taxi to go to Medical, the company’s fire department was on site with SCBA and protective equipment donned.
The trip to Medical although only a couple of blocks away, seemed so much further. The feeling of suffocating, burning sinuses, and choking seemed to overwhelm everything else. The nurse on duty promptly stated the assistant roller was doing much better after having a glass of water and washing his face and that was all we should do. I told him that it hurt to breathe and his response was, “Well if one of you is going to the hospital, you’re all going!” A city taxi was called, and five of us were loaded in and driven to a local hospital. We were admitted and put on oxygen for about two hours. As we were being discharged the hospital staff told the assistant roller to follow a strict protocol when he returned to work. Shower, take everything he was wearing, place it into a garbage bag and dispose of it and not to even attempt to wash them.
A little while later we returned to the mill area, our area coach and department manager were in and taking statements for the official accident report. During our discussion we found out that the roller had come back up the stairs while we were talking at the desk beside the mill, he had hooked up a high pressure air line to the oiling system and had opened it fully without tell anyone while he went off to get food from the vending machines.
Our night shift ended and we began our ten-day Christmas shutdown, hardly suspecting what changes were in store for us.