From the time Andrew Carnegie began steel production in North Braddock, PA in 1875 until more than a century late, steel mills were a huge part of the landscape of Pittsburgh and other similar steel-producing cities around the United States.
During the mid-century, when steel was in great demand, large companies such as U.S. Steel produced in the range of some 35 million tons of the metal per year, serving the needs of a variety of industries that demanded their products for the building of ships, skyscrapers, bridges, and much more. Smaller steel mills stayed busy, too.
Together, the countries mills employed more than a million Americans during those boon years, and they were a proud workforce, doing whatever it took to aid in the growth of the U.S. And today, though the industry is smaller, there are still plenty of hard workers employed with steel companies throughout the nation.
Steel plant workers were involved in a variety of tasks on a daily basis and brought a variety of skills to each plant as well. Tradespeople who worked in the industry included:
- Machinists – individuals who operates a variety of machine tools for use in layout, fitting, and assembly work.
- Boilermakers – a worker who lays out, fabricates, assembles, and makes repairs for all types of structural, boiler, and plate work.
- Welders – an employee charged with the task of welding, cutting, or brazing different types of metal.
- Millwrights – a person who inspects, repairs, replaces, installs, adjusts, and maintains all mechanical equipment in an assigned area.
- Pipefitters – these workers lay out, install, and repair or maintain miles of pipelines and fixtures inside and outside a steel plant.
- Blacksmith – the workers with this title are responsible for forging, hammer-welding, and heat treating iron and steel materials in the construction and maintenance of certain plant equipment
- Inspectors – given the task of making sure all is running well, steel plant inspectors inspect machinery, equipment, tools, and other items essential to the operation.
- Contract employees – a steel plant often “contracts” individuals from a variety of trades who do not work for them on a regular basis but rather come in to complete a specific task.
All of the jobs above involve hard work in often dangerous situations. While steel plants endeavored to be as safe as possible, the early years of industry brought accidents that involved fires, high temperature-related burns, and other such tragedies. As a result, plant owners and designers began to make widespread use of asbestos materials to help avoid such issues.
Even though asbestos may have aided in cutting down on fires and similar episodes, workers were then facing a different kind of danger – the kind related to the inhalation of dangerous asbestos fibers, which can remain in the region of the lungs and eventually cause asbestosis, mesothelioma, or lung cancer.
Any of the workers listed above may have encountered asbestos if they worked at a steel mill prior to about 1980, when the U.S. government recommended that industries cease the use of asbestos-containing materials.
Because mesothelioma cancer can take up to five decades to develop, many of those plant workers are just now discovering the toll that asbestos exposure took on their bodies and are faced with a deadly cancer diagnosis.
It’s a sad reality for these individuals, many of whom were eagerly awaiting the joys of retirement but are now – along with their loved ones – confronting the realities of this tough-to-beat disease.