Steel manufacturers know that the global demand for steel is almost always increasing, and customers require greater engineering performance. Customers also require variations in the performance characteristics of specialized, costly alloys, which warrant investment in safe, efficient QC testing equipment. Specialized components, such as those used in aviation, require precision machining. Aircraft turbine engine compressor blades, for example, may require precision casting to tolerances of seven microns or less.
The urgency to increase production and focus on key production values can sometimes lead to risk of serious workplace injury, often due to under-recognized dangers in secondary processes. QC testing operations – where injuries often involve equipment that lacks necessary retrofitting with safety devices, or compliance with published ANSI, ASTM, ISO, or other industry standards – is a case in point.
Additionally, secondary processes like QC testing are what might be called “first assignment” areas for new, contract, or temporary workers who all too often are under-trained and unaware of the potential dangers of metal production.
The “class” of worker is noteworthy because the differing ways in which injury compensation is handled have financial implications for the employer. Basically, employees are limited to the exclusive remedy provision of worker’s compensation law, which does not provide for non-economic damages. Other classes of workers may be able to sue for non-economic damages, resulting in verdicts or settlements that can cripple a company.
Our firm was involved in a real-world example as counsel for a large steel mill that burns roughly 30,000 quality-control test samples a year. In that case, eight-foot-long, 500-pound tail samples were cut from sheet steel in the main roller room and were channeled onto a customized metal roller conveyor system that diverted samples to the sample burning room. A series of gates restrained and managed each sample’s movement along the conveyor until a final gate clamped down on the tail sample so a laser could cut the sample into smaller segments for QC testing.
In this case, however, with the final gate on the conveyor shut, the penultimate gate opened, freeing an uncut tail sample to continue down the conveyor and collide with the slab in the clutch of the final gate. The uncut slab careened into the air, striking an employee in the head. The injured employee was hired through a service, and it was his first day on the job.
It was a tragedy in personal terms, and the steel company lived up to its responsibilities to the injured worker. Additionally, by following a number of prudent practices, both before and after the accident, the company was protected from legal action that might have created a serious financial threat to the business. Here are some operations and legal steps every metal manufacturer should consider to reduce personal injury on the job and damaging financial liability in secondary process areas:
- Immediately examine older equipment and put requisite safeguards into place. It is natural to be focused on mainline production safety and operations. However, a safety audit may reveal necessary retrofitting in areas such as QC sampling. In this case, a post-accident engineering study resulted in the installation of horizontal spacers spanning the conveyor track to prevent tail samples from jumping the conveyor. The spacers were not required by written standard, but they provided extra safety.
- Ensure compliance with published industry standards. The litany of ASTM, ANSI, OSHA, ISO, and other standards for production of metal and component parts and machine safety is beyond the scope of this article. Consider retaining an occupational safety engineer to conduct an audit that closely assesses older QC test equipment.
- Ensure that contracts with any temporary worker service providers expressly state that the provider will provide worker’s compensation coverage. For your employees, worker’s compensation is the “sole remedy” for claims in the event of workplace injury. However, temporary, contract and other classes of workers – again, often placed in secondary process positions – may be able to sue under Employer Liability Law (“ELL”) that can include non-economic damages such as pain and suffering.
To maintain consistent standards of coverage and liability across a mixed workforce, your worker-service contracts need to delineate that your contractor’s worker’s compensation coverage is the sole remedy for temporary workers. Although plaintiffs may challenge contractual provisions in court, manufacturers should put in place contractual indemnity provisions that result in consistent protection across all worker classes and forms of claims.
- Ensure that contracts contain an indemnity provision providing that the service provider will fully indemnify the metal manufacturer for injuries of any kind to the temporary worker. Clauses that provide an exception for the “sole negligence of the manufacturer” can often lead to expensive litigation and leave the door open for exposure. Protect your company by resisting the inclusion of such language in your service contracts.
To close, as important as it is for metal manufacturers to meet growing demand and concentrate on the principal staffing, processes, and equipment of main-line production, experience indicates that the dynamics and risks associated with secondary production processes also deserve increased attention.