It was poetry in motion. It was also tough enough to armor a Humvee going to war. It was a U.S. steel mill.
I spent a shift with steelworker Bob Broun and got a first-hand look at the inner workings of the North Star BlueScope Steel Mill in Delta, Ohio. I also got a first-hand feel; intense heat radiated off the 3,000-degree liquid steel.
"It's a beautiful process," Broun said of the steel making he oversees on his usual 12-hour shift. "It's something that shows that we as humans can take control of these powerful, powerful things and melt them to what we want them to be."
A delicate yet dangerous dance keeps the mile-long mill humming 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Molten steel is formed into blocks, then rolled and flattened into thin and incredibly long ribbons of steel. The steel strips zip through the mill, at speeds up to 30 miles per hour. At their final destination, they are spooled into massive coils.
Broun's typical work day starts at 6:20 a.m., when he visits his locker before the start of his 7 a.m. shift to catch up with co-workers ending their overnight shift. The plant-wide team of 340 workers is extremely tight. When the economy weakened in 2008 and demand for steel fell, workers voluntarily gave up shifts so that everyone could stay on the job and no one would be laid off.
"We are all in it together. We hurt together, we do good together," Broun said. "To me, the team is everything."
The mill's non-stop schedule means he rotates four weeks on day shift, four weeks on overnight and spends many holidays on the job with co-workers, rather than at home with his family.
During the worst of it, besides the voluntary furlough's, Broun's shifts went from 12 hours to eight hours and there wasn't any overtime or bonuses. When things really got tight, Broun's family missed some mortgage payments and almost lost their home.
He's back up to regular 12 hour shifts now, but production still is not back to where it used to be.
CLICK HERE to read Broun's submission essay.
Like Turning a Volcano Upside Down
Before we set foot in the mill, Broun and I suited up with hard hats, gloves, goggles and ear plugs. Our first stop was the furnace, and the noise was deafening.
"It's like the loudest Rolling Stones concert you've ever heard. And you're next to the speakers," Broun said.
The furnace is the heart of the operation, making 190 tons of liquid steel every 40 minutes. The heat, the power, the roar was truly stunning. I felt the vibrations through my whole body.
After the steel was formed into blocks, it was sent through equipment to flatten it like pasta dough, from which incredibly long ribbons of steel were made.
"It's moving pretty good," Broun said as the metal ribbons rushed by, traveling a football field's distance in about seven seconds.
We ended up in the section of the mill where Broun works, where the steel ribbons are coiled and quality checked. On an average day, the mill produces up to 300 coils, with each coil weighing up to 25 tons.
The coils that pass inspection are loaded onto rail cars or trucks and shipped to customers across the country. The steel will be used for a variety of purposes, from everyday automobile manufacturing to armoring humvees.
"These are pure American products," Broun said proudly.
Nothing goes to waste at the steel mill. Any extra product is sent to colleges to teach welding students and, once training is complete, returned to the mill to be melted down and reused.
After working in intense heat, keeping safe as tons of metal whooshed past on its way through massive processing equipment, Broun said that he'd accomplished a job well done. "It was an excellent day," he beamed.