Over the years, when I have had occasion to come up to the main gate of any of the mines on the Iron Range, I always like to see the sign informing everyone of how many days it has been since an accident occurred at that mine. How nice it is to see a large number! That large number didn’t just happen by chance, of course. It is the result of many decades of people figuring out what will make this workplace safer and people following the rules.
Hardhats, or helmets, are a regular part of life when working at the mines. Those helmets have evolved through the years to add more comfort and greater protection. But there are other items which are a necessary part of an employee’s life. Two of those items and their evolution will be discussed in this article.
I remember as a girl in the 1960s seeing a small cross on the temple piece on each side of my Uncle Jerry’s eye glasses. I asked him about that. He explained that his glasses were made from safety glass, specially made to keep eyes safe in industrial areas. He worked in the Accounting Department at the Erie Taconite Mine, so I wondered why HE would need safety glasses. He wasn’t in the pit or the plant. He explained that there were many times when he would have to go out into the plant to ask one of those workers about something within the paperwork he was dealing with in the office. But, he stressed, EVERYONE on the property had a responsibility to take care of staying safe, regardless of where they worked. An accident can happen in any place, at any time, he explained. It was very important to be protected.
In the “Ore, Iron and Men” magazine, published for the Oliver Mining Company employees and their families from 1950 to 1963, several articles through the years discuss certain aspects of the importance of safety and how to achieve it.
It was in the August 1958 issue that I had first come across an article concerning the importance of the correct footwear and how such footwear was evolving to be even better than before. Earlier, in the May 1952 issue, is an article concerning safety goggles. And another, in the September 1955 issue, concerns the need to be vigilant about wearing the correct sort of footwear. My thanks to Philip Scalise, Hibbing Historical Society Board member and dedicated volunteer, for finding those last two articles for me. The following is a combination of all three articles.
These articles remind us that good ideas and knowledge don’t usually spring up fully formed. It often takes time, experimentation, and the evolution of an idea to reach a successful result. Achieving those high numbers on the “Days since an accident here” boards at the gates of our mines didn’t happen overnight.
The inauguration of the Oliver Iron Mining Company’s 100% safety goggles program began in 1948.
Going back through the Safety Department accident files to 1920 (the first year we have complete data on all injuries), it is most revealing to note that in that year 328 employees received serious eye injuries. In contrast to this unenviable record is the fact that in 1949 we had one such injury. In 1950 there were none. In 1951 there were two.
This certainly is proof positive that wearing safety glasses at all times saves eyes.
The saving of eyes ranks high in Oliver’s safety program, for an employee’s sight is that person’s great asset. The prevention of eye injuries is something that we all have a stake in. It may be news to those reading this, but EVERY eight-hour work day, a thousand American workers in factories, mines, mills and other places of work suffer disabling eye injuries.
Some workers have their eyes pierced by fragments of metal, wood or rock; others will have eyesight damaged or destroyed by a splash of acid, caustic or molten metal. This goes on every day, and the sad part is that 98% of those eye injuries can be avoided by doing just what Oliver employees are doing—wearing their safety glasses all the time they are on the job.
The idea that eye protection is necessary only in occupations hazardous to the eyes is disproved by surveys made by the National Safety Council. It is known very definitely that 70% of all eye injuries occur in occupations considered non-hazardous to the eyes. Our experience prior to initiating our present goggle program bears this out. Oliver employees lost eyes while shoveling dirt, handling hemp rope, even prying up frozen chunks of ice.
Safety glasses protect the eyes against flying objects due to a special heat-treating and strong cooling process. The process results in a toughened lens which will stand the terrific impact of a 7/8 inch steel ball dropped from the height of 50 inches without breaking the glass.
If, for example, the glass does break due to a flying bolt head or rock striking it at an unusually high velocity, the metal frame holds the broken fragments of the glass in place. The curve of the lens provides more deflection of flying particles, as well as giving greater eyelash clearance, less reflection, and most important of all, added strength.
We all admit that wearing safety glasses many be something of an inconvenience, maybe especially for those individuals who don’t normally wear glasses. But it certainly is a trifling thing compared to the inconvenience of being blind.
Yes, sometimes the safety glass fogs up. Sometimes it gets dirty. But it is far better to take the time to clean the glasses than go without their protection and lose an eye.
Weighing the objections, don’t you agree that it’s very hard to find a good reason for not wearing safety glasses? They protect the only pair of eyes you will ever have.
From our eyes, let’s move all the way down to our feet.
In the first seven months of 1955, the Oliver Division of United States Steel had a very good safety record. However, there were many toe injuries, representing 30% of all disabling injuries and an estimated 354 days lost from work. Getting all employees to wear safety shoes was one of the many objectives of the safety program.
A common complaint about why people don’t like to wear safety shoes is that the shoes cost so much. However, safety shoes should be looked at as a cheap investment. Imagine yourself going to work without wearing shoes—think how it would be walking around in the pits, shops and yards. You wouldn’t last long. Of course, it is a ridiculous idea. Yet walking around with ordinary shoes is really no better than walking barefoot in our workplace.
Here is a recent toe accident in the Oliver Division:
In one of the plants, a maintenance mechanic received a painful injury to his big toe when a portion of a metal chute dropped down onto his foot, fracturing his big two toe in two places. Safety shoes would have undoubtedly prevented this injury. The man was off work for six weeks, with a lot of pain, suffering, and inconvenience to him and his family at home!
So let’s be sure to include the spouses of workers in our education about the importance of safety shoes. Encourage your Oliver employee to buy and wear the safety shoes!
Another complaint sometimes heard about the shoes is that they hurt the feet and are too heavy. These were legitimate complaints years ago. The first such shoes made were clumsy with little style and even of questionable protective qualities. They were made with the box toes having fiber or other composition for the box material. In order for that box to be heavy enough to render any worthwhile protection, it had to be very bulky. This made the old-time safety shoes unsightly, clumsy, and in many cases, uncomfortable. They could even chafe and pinch the toes for want of sufficient space within the toe box. Those first crude shoes caused unfavorable memories in the minds of many workers, or even those workers’ descendants who remember the complaining.
Today’s shoes, however, are very different. They are much better-looking and far more comfortable. The steel cap which will support at least a ton, weighs only 2 ½ ounces.
An objection sometimes raised by workers is “I’m afraid the steel cap will tip back during an accident and cut my toes off!” This worry is unfounded. The basic structural design of the anchor flange steel toe is very wide at the base of the toe box. It is firmly anchored between the outside and the inside of the shoe. This prevents any tipping.
Of course, the best made footwear in the world, the most expensive and carefully designed, is absolutely defeated if the shoe is not properly fitted to the feet of the wearer. “Seven out of ten people wear shoes that are two short or too narrow for their feet,” says one authority. Constantly wearing a shoe, any shoe, too short or too tight can not only cause many complaints about “rotten shoes” but can also cause severe foot problems like bunions.
Foot injuries caused by falling objects are common at the mines. Many of our employees have tasks that include climbing, walking, and handling materials. Each time they move, pick up a tool or any other object, they have to contend with Isaac Newton’s law of gravity: “Anything that goes up must come down.”
So one step all employees can take in the right direction to eliminate or at least reduce the common accident of foot injuries—“struck by falling objects or material”—is to wear safety shoes.
In 1957, almost 2,000 pairs of safety shoes were purchased by safety-minded individuals in the Oliver’s three divisions. Sadly, those who still ignore the plea to wear safety shoes may need a railroad tie, an ore chunk, a drill bit, or some other heavy object falling on their feet to stir them from their complacency. Too late they will learn the real value of safety shoes. Remember that law of gravity—“What goes up must come down”—and if it’s coming down on our feet, we better have them protected with safety shoes!
We have 26 bones in our feet. That’s 26 good reasons for wearing foot protection.
I am pleased to learn from Nick Zubich, welder at Hibbing Taconite and husband of the Hibbing Historical Society’s curator Erica Larson Zubich, that the importance of safety footwear is still very much a part of employees’ gear. From Nick, I learned that the current stipend for employees is $200 for boots. They may purchase the approved footwear from anywhere, but this footwear must meet certain requirements. And these days, not only are steel toe-boxes required, but also a metatarsal guard as well.
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