Fatal Blast at Indiana Steel Plant Under Review

January 11, 2010

Investigators are taking a “hard look” at safety at a northwestern Indiana steel mill following an explosion that killed one worker and injured four just weeks after another blast at the same plant injured eight workers, a state official said Jan 8.

The workers apparently were caught in a blast of superheated steam the night of Jan. 7 after water met with molten steel in the electric arc furnace at Beta Steel in Portage, Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration Deputy Commissioner Jeffry Carter said.

“We are fairly convinced it was a steam explosion,” he said.

The Portage Fire Department said one worker died at the scene and the others were taken to hospitals with steam burns. Their conditions were not immediately available Friday, but Beta Steel spokesman Joseph F. Gazarkeiwicz said their injuries were not life-threatening.

Porter County Coroner Vicki Deppe said worker Michael Kies, 35, of Griffith, died from head injuries he suffered in the explosion. Company and fire officials did not release the names of the injured.

Kensey Alsman, president of the International Longshoremen’s Association Local 2038, said the two millwrights and two supervisors were investigating a water leak in the furnace when the blast occurred.

“There was water running into the furnace from somewhere,” he said.

Other workers except for a crane operator, who was not injured, were in a break room at the time, Alsman said.

Investigators traced the water leak to piping above the furnace, Carter said.

He said the blast appeared to be “very different” from the November one, which blew out the side of the furnace. That explosion was fire-related, he said.

“Right now we are operating under the belief these were distinct different problems that just happened to occur on the same furnace,” Carter said. He said the investigation was still in its early stages.

But, he said, “Having two incidents on the same furnace makes us want to step back and take a good hard look at it – which is exactly what my investigators are doing now.”

Carter said the overall safety record at Beta Steel, which produces hot-rolled coil for steel service centers and tube and pipe manufacturers, is good.

In March 1996, three steelworkers were killed and eight were injured when a pressurized water-air tank at the lakefront Portage plant exploded.

An electrical contractor apparently was electrocuted in January 2000 while working on transformers in the plant’s control room.

Alsman said the explosion did not raise his concerns about safety at the plant.

“It’s a hazardous environment,” he said. “When we can, we minimize those risks as much as we can.”

Carter said Indiana steel plants’ safety record has improved in recent years but the work remains dangerous. Steel temperatures can surpass 2,000 degrees, he said.

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