Hadfields steelworks 1981 - the human story

I was diligent in what I did, benefitting me with an enduring image where a doorway framed a prior boss clutching his head between his hands, with anguished face, as he cried out "Bring back Richard Smith - all is forgiven!!!". That diligence kept me in the job, as I wobbled in adapting to and taking on in-entirety my new world.

I grasped to my heart the wish to make on their world of straight-forward world-wise truisms my world. It made a lot more sense than the "enlightened" world I was turning my back on (personal note)

I was fortunate to get in, with high unemployment in the area at the time. My interpretation is the forceful Managing Director took a shine to me coming in with my buzzing enthusiasm and I got that chance which I ran with.

Hadfields as I experienced it was a working environment out-of-line with all the silted-up bogged-down goalless working world of a declining economy I was to subsequently experience.
Hadfields had been like the other famous Sheffield steel companies in making the complete high-end steels portfolio of castings, forgings, rolled alloy steels and special steels.
Bought in a state of ruin with only a rolled steels operation surviving by "Tiny" Rowland and his "Lonrho" group, he installed tough local steelmaker "Mad Jack" Woodhouse with absolute control.
The powerful adjectives categorising "Tiny" Rowland's business approach identically describe "Mad Jack" Woodhouse, I suggest. From very different social backgrounds, my perception is that regarding business they were naturally matching and in close agreement.
(Historical note: a British company would generally have a Board with money-people suppressing leadership from the technical core of the Company)

He had to massively disrupt established comfortable ways of working to give any chance of making a viable manufacturing operation.
The effort succeeded...

The Company turned a profit selling steel to its customers despite competing against subsidised nationalised producers.
The value of convenience and specific requirements met made the nett cost to the customer lower even though the per-tonne price exposed the full unsubsidised manufacturing cost (explanation).

Meanwhile, the people I worked with were the 1-in-10 to 1-in-20 survivors of the massive round of redundancies as industries collapsed.
They were very self-aware of the indulgent fantasy of the non-work in the previous decade, the 1970's.
The person at the reconvening meeting exercising their exemption from obligation to deliver their portion of the plan (sic.) was no ally of the 15 others who had done their parts towards the launch of the new way things would be done. To keep jobs, everyone knew there had to be one improving change after another, in quick succession, iterating around ever tightening performance. With no spare time or energy to recover the plan where anyone did not deliver. All the "with exemption" (sic.) persons chose to part ways with the Company. In the context of a high unemployment rate afflicting the economy...

Change is never easy to accept and one example of forcing the pace is described. It was identifying that ingots must be quickly transferred hot from the melting-shop to the rolling-mill for immediate charge to the gas-fired furnaces heating the ingots to rolling temperature (the "soaking pits" in steelworks terminology). The Director contracted-in a demolition team who over a weekend completely demolished the reheating furnace which took ingots from ambient temperature to the low-red temperature for charging into the "soaking pits". Come Monday, it was simply not there any more.
Vacating a route for an adapted very large forklift truck to transfer the red-hot ingots.
The argument that any error in timing would cause the ingots to crack on placing in the "soaking pits" is always persuasive, so all ingots would have been put through the reheating furnace if it still existed. This absolute intervention, enforcing that the new method was the only method, forced the change immediately. A new production cooperation linking the melting-shop and rolling-mill in a tightly-linked flowing sequential production process made the new arrangement work. The rapid through-flow furthered that vital "selling point", reliable quick delivery. All this was foreseen? I am sure it was, considering this with the benefit of 35 years of industrial work experience.

That was an early intervention by the new leadership, with the side-effect of establishing its authority and purpose. Subsequent interventions were the team efforts.

I mentioned the "truisms" which would define my new world.
They share a deceptive simplicity, but whose attainment requires clear purpose. Examples:

This became my world.
In one vista, I could look up at the humming electricity pylons bringing in electricity equivalent to that used by 10's of thousands of homes, see the scrap metal being received and processed, the lorries carrying lime and fluorspar tipping - knowing we had to by exactitude of production activity maintain that very few percent of profit margin on the price for steel leaving the gate. Maintaining quality to get price and keeping through-yield within a fraction of a percent of the achievable to avoid loss.

So I defined who I was as I embarked on my career.

Technical details

Our training programme took us around the support functions of the steelworks, so that we could be incidentally introduced to venturing out onto the Works shop-floor supervised on specific missions.

So we did the sales team and department, the quality assurance department, the metallurgical laboratories, the non-destructive testing department, ...

There's a lot of good things there. Of these, an early "magic" was preparing and inspecting samples in the metallurgical laboratory .

The works was far from modern. For example, then in the early 1980's, the rolling-mill was from the 1920's. The rolling stands, the gearboxes, the heavy electrical equipment driving the rolls ("Ilgner sets") where all from the 1920's.
The overall appearance of the Hadfield rolling mill .

Many of the steel grades were resulfurized (UK-English : resulphurised) for machinability, so the steel refinement in the melting shop only needed an oxidising slag stage . Another reason for a break with the past - discontinue what had become minority product lines for the company but which would have forced the same cost on all products if the capability were maintained, and concentrate on a coherent category of products the company excelled in.

The overall appearance of the steelworks is seen in another webpage.
This world included the internal-organs-shaking noise of the electric-arc furnace getting under-way, the intense heat radiation while "tapping" (pouring the steel out of) the furnace, the clattering of the bar mill - all environments in which survival required knowing when it was time to run - fast! For those who have never worked inside the industrial world, I wish I could convey it, but that is more than anyone could possibly do.

The day-to-day work; the "daily reality"

Like most jobs, there was a base rhythym.

The "Quality office" was the main daily steady job.
Set in the middle of the steelworks, it collated production information, enabling at this one source an accurate overview of the state of production in the entire steelworks.

The steelworks used paper "dockets" accompanying each job to inform each department through which flowed the batch of steel what job it was. From which could be identified what needed doing to it - what were the requirements.
By noting the dockets at each production stage (eg the "soaking-pit" pulpit, the rolling-mill office, etc) at frequent intervals, we produced a single ever-progressing table which gave at-a-glance a very good diagnosis of the flow of production.
The starting production unit was a "cast" of steel. Given the arc furnace is always operated to full capacity (nothing else is feasible or economic). In this case around 80 tonnes of steel. Preceding optimisation of scrap going into the most economical melt is of course vital. However... Upon melting and refining the enduring properties of the steel as experienced by the customer are formed; making the "cast" the crucial identifier for quality assurance.
Therefore; this table growing forward in time tracked the fate of each cast as it flowed through the factory through to dispatch to customer.
Perusing this table was similar to, in medical anology, checking the pulse of a patient - an overall indicator of wellness of the current situation.
We the junior staff could see anomolies and obtain explanations at the time, so we could make notes. Which I would now categorise as enabling it to be seen whether something departing below optimum was a random untoward variable (eg a breakdown) about which not much could be done or a systematic variable which needed action.

A formative early experience was being pressured to make the quality office production chart ever more complete and up-to-date to within very few hours of the production. This was capped by departments contacting the quality office saying they did not feel comfortable with me intercepting and taking away dockets for recording while production was still ongoing in their department. Given any mishap would leave them with unidentified material; an obvious unacceptable risk. The compromise I implemented which pleased all was to note the largest orders entering each department and enter them on the production table, but to formally capture all information later "in the normal way".

All of us in the quality function supporting production had a "shift" shop-floor quality control operator role we could "cover", by reason of being trained and mentored into that job. On exigencies like holidays and illness taking away a quality control technician (one is needed for each shift, normally meaning three are required to cover a 24-hour period), a person from the daytime quality office could switch to working a production shift in that area.
My "shift cover" role was the bar mill quality control operator.
Staff shortage always made the night shift the most difficult to person and that was what you would have to cover. Which meant no support in place: no-one to call; no assistance available. On the night shift from 10pm to 6am, there is no overlap at any time with the office day staff. You were there on your own in representing the quality function in the production department. Sometimes for one night; sometimes for days and up to a couple of weeks. The quality system had you "releasing" each product batch to proceed onwards; so you had an absolute ability to squeeze the production department. Getting conformance to requirements while keeping the production flowing was of course a more artful exercise in communicating with the production personnel around you. The barmill QC job had recording like the reheating furnace temperature. There were measurements like bar size, using a micrometer. Then there were tests like "upsetting" samples - you had the shear operator crop a "short" say 50mm long, put it in a small dedicated furnace at yellow heat then squeeze it in a dedicated hydraulic press lengthways to make it bulge around its girth and reveal intruding "lap" defects if present.
The shift QC cover role introduced me to what became a vital familiar feature in manufacturing: it is necessary to possess an absolute authority to halt production to force those you oversee to fulfil to your wishes, but to never exercise that authority in operating by cooperation in getting products flowing through right first time.

The sensible employee (?)

All very worthy stuff I have described...
As previously mentioned, I was credited with diligent systematic work.

The other side of my personality is a fizzing enthusiasm.
I effervesced with ideas on forms of continuous caster to replace the ingot casting which persisted at this plant. Doing quite organised investigation of what was being offered by iron-and-steel-plant engineering companies.
Then I sketched-out ideas for more elegant ways of extracting the steel ingots from the cast-iron moulds while transferring them to the rolling mill in the process; looking to optimise what is while also having an interest in what must supercede it.

I did things which amused but clearly worked.
I so often got off my chair to file dockets in the filing cabinets after recording information that I formed and attached a front weight out of an offcut of about 60mm square solid steel. So that I could "flick" the chair backwards with the back of my lower legs to get up without the chair falling over backwards. They played-up in jest by strapping a huge weight of scrap steel under my chair, forcing me into it as I returned to the office, lifted it and me into the recess in my desk and left me unable to move - to their great amusement.
A job I recurrently did was cold-stamp identities on every billet for some customers who required it - typically after full-grinding, which with many-kW machines could leave a quite hard surface on alloy steel billets. Hence, as anyone would do (?!), I found a discarded sledgehammer head, took it to the maintenance workshop and had a thick stocky handle fitted. So that, as I went along a line of billets, the hammer and punch hopped along in a rhythm of rebounding jumps. When others were rostered to do the stamping, they were with pretend earnestness proffered my sledgehammer, taken from its place beside my desk, with words of "You must have this".

The steelworks environment

Simply follow me on details and build your own picture of what I am saying here...

Everyone wore a fireproof wool-rich jacket with no external pockets - standard for steelworks and foundry. No external pockets so splashes of liquid metal can't fall in and burn you anyway. Most avoided artificial fibre clothing. Wool is very fireproof, neither melting nor burning. Cotton will burn but doesn't melt, and when burning can be quite readily patted-out. Polymer artificial fibre clothing burns as a bubbling "toffee" which sticks to the skin, and the burning isn't easy to stop - not good.

Walking past the huge gas-fired furnaces like the ones for bringing ingots to rolling temperature, I only had to learn once that you breath in quite deeply before you go into that zone, then breath shallowly on top of that and hold your breath if you suspect there are stray jets of hot gas. You must train yourself not to gasp in pain if burned. And to resume breathing only when you feel the overall temperature is manageable in the areas you travel on into, continuing to walk about your business.
Natural-gas (methane) flames are almost transparent, and leakage from furnaces - jets of hot gas - are fairly much invisible. There's so much heat-haze around, the heat-haze from one jet can't be noticed. Especially in the narrow walkways between the various steelworks plant.
You got so accustomed to holding your breath and pinching your eyes nearly shut to protect your eyes, continuing walking-on straight to your destination that you had no surprise when the side of your jacket was brown with seared fibres.
You could lose significant parts of an eyebrow, burned away.
I even once had my eyelashes a bit melted together.
I did notice that some visitors I conducted around were completely intimidated by the environment.

The melting shop and especially its ingot casting area "benefitted" from a lot of steel spray. Molten steel spilled preferentially breaks into a fine spray, the steel burning in air and remaining a high yellow hot.
You learn to, in one quick simultaneous action, dip your head forward so your helmet peak shields you face, straighten-up to pull the creases out of your clothes so burning steel spray cannot dwell anywhere and do more than bounce off you, you clasp your jacket closed around you, and where the situation is bad get your hands get refuge under each opposite armpit as you clasp your jacket shut around you. Best stay still until the spray stops. Movement would open gaps in your clothing the steel spray could get through. On the raised staging of the ingot pouring area a mishap had the steel spray go on for so long that, looking downwards in shielded my face, through the steel grating I was observing wooden pallets and various sacks of materials on the ground below catching fire. Subjecting me to rising heat and smoke which would have forced to move if the ladle valve had not finally shut.

Don't let luridness mislead.

"Monster" hazards like the huge flow of white-hot metal tapped out of the arc-furnace into the ladle are actually fairly negligible risks because they are so totally obvious and the extreme things like the ferocious heat radiation from the white-hot stream drives-back anyone from getting too close.

This is the real deal. If every eventuality which could hurt you is very improbable, but there are a lot of them, then there is a real probability that you could be involved in a mishap. So you are always minimising risks in lots of ways which no procedurality could describe.
You accumulate occasions when, but for something you did to avoid a low but identifiable risk, you would have been in the wrong place at the wrong time where something went wrong.
For example : I was left contemplating my would-have-been fate in the barmill on surveying tens of metres of red-hot bar wrapped back-and-forth around a footbridge over the rolling track where I had speeded-up to be over it and gone before a bar I could see approaching in the distance passed under it. No noted risk, but this time that bar reared-up in a "hockey-stick end" coming out of the adjacent rolling stand, catching and wrapping around the overbridge. It cost me nothing to minimise that minimal risk, and that's what you do...

These thought processes always run in your mind, evaluating your surrounding and its potential risks - the factor of the consequence of a conjectured event happening and the probability it could happen.
Risk control is a mix of having been mentored into a working environment and this perpetual running active process of evaluating risks.

The big things are what concerns you. When the subject evaluates to you as minor, you doubt an outsider truly holds dear to their heart your realistic well-being.

Teamwork... If you do not do your part of the job properly, someone else could get hurt or killed.
You do your job concientously or you will get pushed out of the working environment.
It's a discipline which makes you a type of person, working in manufacturing and construction environments.

Getting to the point - the serious mishaps which did occur in my time in the steelworks were "unexpected" events in lower-risk / minimal hazard areas. These happen at similar frequency in "safe" environments (noting when writing the Grenfell Tower fire in London, as an example).

I learned to act now and apologise later if necessary.
Preamble - on entering a mill building or crossing between bays you look where the overhead cranes are. Their lifting and moving activities present the greatest hazard, generally. Technical context - in a workshop or mill building, cranes high up near the roof run along each bay supported on extra-strength roof beams, with lifting wires and hook hanging into the work-space below.
Assigned to look after new-starting trainees because of, well, whatever is recognised about me which makes that so, we were walking, about to cross from the rolling-mill bay to the billet-cooling-bank bay. With a heat-shielding wall with occasional person-sized arches between. Checking, I saw the wheels-end of a crane approaching where the arch is which we would pass through, and checking again, I saw the lifting mechanism was in-sight therefore near the wall, implying a load was near the wall. With the odds stacking up too much, in this noisy area and a couple of seconds to go, I clubbed my fists together and swung them hard into his chest to knock him to a stop. His eyes shot out on stalks. A yellow-hot load swung by past the arch, close-in, which we would have walked straight into. Winded, bent-over and struggling to breath, he volunteered with grateful expression a clear emphatic thumbs-ups, indicating he was happy and good with what had just happened.

My world in which I lived.
These are snapshots from this world, which I hope are evocative and persist in likeness in the working world I follow.

More notes...

Unemployment was high, industrial collapse was a huge social problem - and some rules got bent. Coming back up North to Sheffield from Birmingham, closing in on the "M1", a thin orange column of dusty haze rising to a height visible from several miles away indicated all was well in the steelworks. What that looked like from within the melting-shop is indescribable. Perhaps search on-line for historical videos? The technology existed to suppress the dust, but everyone was hanging-in by their finger-ends and the exigency of keeping what employment there was resulted in a more flexible approach...

The bustle and energy of the industrial world of the British Midlands of my childhood and youth I was not to see again until I worked in Turkey in 2015.

(R. Smith, 13Dec2017, 26Dec2017, 29Dec2017)