- Joe Hitt, Ph.D.
Steel Manufacturing Safety: The Hidden Worker Risks & How to Combat Them
Steel manufacturing is a staple of modern industry, and one of the most widely used engineering and construction materials. We utilize steel to build and improve our cities and infrastructure, build machinery, and manufacture consumer goods; we need steel, and that means that we need steelworkers to satisfy global demands. And, if we want a reliable supply chain, manufacturing safety has to go deeper than looking at the visible, obvious risks present on the foundry floor — we have to dig into the “hidden risks” that underlie them and what we can do to combat them.
Manufacturing Safety Risks in the Global Steel Industry
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the incidence rate for non-fatal injuries and illnesses in the iron and steel forging industry was 4.7 in 2021. This means that 4.7 out of every 100 workers suffered an injury or illness in the industry. 3.1 workers out of every 100 suffered an injury or illness that caused them to need “days away from work, job restriction, or transfer.”
Outside of the U.S., a study conducted from November 2019 to March 2020 in Burnpur, West Bengal, India, investigated the prevalence and risk factors of accidents and injuries among iron and steel industry workers at the Indian Iron and Steel Company (IISCO). The study revealed that 28% of workers experienced accidents and injuries within the last 12 months.
Injuries in the steel industry can range from burns to crushed limbs to chemical damage and falls. The most common injuries and illnesses in the iron and steel industry, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO), are slips and trips, falls from heights, machinery accidents, and environmental exposure, among others. While it’s not possible to completely remove these dangers from the workplace, it’s critical to mitigate them at every turn to better ensure worker health and safety.
Thermal stress is possibly the best place to start — it’s a common issue in the industry that can easily cause most other types of injuries on the floor.
What Is Thermal Stress?
Thermal stress is the negative effect of enduring too much heat. As core temperature increases, the body tries to lower it by sweating, and, if nothing is done to help the body keep up, dehydration sets in. Being uncomfortably warm isn’t ideal, but dehydration is the real threat here.
According to numerous studies, including one from the National Library of Medicine, just 2% dehydration is enough to impact cognition, memory, psychomotor skills, and more. Prolonged and unmonitored exposure to high temperatures dehydrates steel workers, and that, in turn, can drive up the likelihood of severe harm through other injuries and illnesses.
Thermal stress also impacts productivity. As explained in a study conducted in Southern India, “productivity loss was significantly reported high in workers with direct heat exposures compared to those with indirect heat exposures.” When workers aren’t given adequate support to offset the effects of thermal stress, their performance is impacted, slowing down production and affecting overall business operations.
And the negative impacts compound over time; the longer a person’s system remains in thermal stress, the more dehydrated they become, increasing the danger. Studies show that at 2.6% dehydration, alertness drops, and people start to feel tired. At 2.8%, short-term memory takes a noticeable hit. At 3.9%, attention and cognitive speed start to drop. Keeping workers from becoming dehydrated from thermal stress is a continuous battle, and one that has to be fought to reduce risk. The key takeaway isn’t that we need to focus on the number 2%, it’s that experts around the world have thoroughly proven that even low levels of dehydration negatively impact ability and safety, and that those impacts become more pronounced the longer someone suffers from thermal stress without treatment or relief.
Addressing the risk of thermal stress in steel manufacturing facilities would both seriously reduce the risk of injury for workers and allow them to be more productive. It’s a win-win scenario.
Where There’s Smoke, It’s Too Late to Prevent the Fire
The most challenging aspect of addressing this problem lies in timing — workers who cross the aforementioned 2% threshold are already in danger; thirst and increased core temperatures are lagging indicators, which means that waiting for those conditions to be met before taking action won’t solve the problem. Instead, we have to get ahead of the issue, which we can do with data, strategy, and support.
By gathering data about workers and their environment, a strategy can be built to keep workers from crossing the 2% line in the first place. If a steel manufacturer discovered that its workers were at risk for dehydration, they could use a variety of means to collect data about the environment and the people working it to create a plan of action. One strategy could be to increase the availability of water in the work environment, for example. And it could be supported by floor managers reminding workers to drink it regularly. It’s more complicated than that in practice, of course.
The problem is figuring out where to start. In order to implement a strategy with the appropriate levels of support, you need accurate data.
The Solution: Wearables for Workers
The amount of ambient heat in a work environment and individual physiological makeup varies from place to place and person to person. In order to reduce the risk of thermal stress, the issue has to be addressed on an individual basis.
GoX Labs’ approach to solving this problem is measuring both the environment and the individuals in it to help manufacturers reduce the overall risk their workers face on the floor.
GoX Labs’ Boost Plus solution is centered around metrics that come from a smartwatch, such as a Samsung Watch 5, worn by employees while they go about their daily work. The GoX algorithm used to measure fatigue with a smartwatch has been validated by the U.S. Army for its accuracy and ability to monitor force, form, fatigue, and environment to find underlying problems that contribute to risk. GoX Labs’ proprietary algorithm is able to detect fatigue with an accuracy rate above 95% by using VO2 to assess energy consumption.
As pointed out by Harvard, fatigue can take hold at the same 2% water deficit referenced earlier.
This makes fatigue one of the leading indicators of heat stress that can be detected before the impacts on cognition and motor skills take hold.
Applying the Data to Real-World Scenarios
Immediately, environmental data can be applied to reduce the risk of thermal stress. If GoX’s wearables detect higher than permissible environmental temperatures during the data-gathering process, that information can be applied by managers and stakeholders to improve conditions by taking steps like adding ventilation or imposing more regular breaks.
On the individual level, GoX’s wearables can be used to monitor vital information and indicate to workers and their managers that they are in need of a break or water to prevent them from entering the aforementioned 2% dehydrated state. It’s crucial to point out that these measures do not impact performance; in our experience, additional breaks and supports actually increase productivity.
After baseline data has been collected, only workers who are at risk will continue to use the wearables to help them adjust and adapt to the work environment. And, as we all know, there are no negative impacts to the business that result from taking better care of workers while they are on the job.
As mentioned earlier, workers who experience thermal stress become dehydrated workers, and dehydration causes a significant decline in both mental and physical capabilities. Addressing thermal stress before it becomes a problem not only keeps workers safe but also keeps them alert, efficient, and productive.
Utilize Wearable Technology to Mitigate Hidden Worker Risks
Thermal stress is a common steel manufacturing safety problem that can easily lead to all kinds of disasters. By combatting this issue with GoX Labs Boost, manufacturers can reduce risk, improve worker health, and increase efficiency. In one case, we were able to bring heat-related injuries down from 6% to zero using our Boost solution, and that’s without factoring in the other injuries that monitoring thermal stress and keeping it from occurring likely prevented.
In manufacturing, skilled labor is the best labor, and to get skilled labor, you need the safety precautions in place to ensure that they don’t lose time or ability to work to injury. Reach out to us to schedule a demo and begin addressing the underlying causes of injuries in your workplace.