The accidental use of too many recycled automobile oil filters in the steelmaking process is the most probable cause of a fatal accident at the Bethlehem Steel Corp. mill in Sparrows Point, according to a recently released investigation by the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health agency.
But Bethlehem was not charged for any safety violation related to the accident. Instead, MOSH issued a serious violation and a $2,850 fine for missing railings on a crane walkway.
Steelworker Wayne G. Thompson, 55, was killed April 19 when cables holding a 295-ton ladle broke, spilling molten steel on to the floor where he was directing the ladle.
At the time of the accident, molten iron was being poured from the ladle into the vessel of an oxygen furnace, where iron is converted to steel.
This super-heated iron reacted violently when it hit 15,000 to 20,000 pounds of crushed oil filters -- containing residual oil -- that had been dumped in the furnace's vessel to be mixed with the iron. Bethlehem regularly uses scrap metal in the steelmaking process.
"This increase in heat could have had an adverse effect on the wire rope, causing the wire rope to decrease in capacity and break," said the MOSH report.
At the same time, the ladle and the vessel may have bumped each other, lifting up the ladle and dropping it back into its hooks, which further strained the cables.
James C. Barry Jr., supervisor of MOSH for the Baltimore metropolitan region, said MOSH did not issue a citation for the accident because it was caused by a crane operator's mistake.
"That is what we would refer to as either employee error or employee misconduct," he said.
Since the accident, Bethlehem has discontinued the use of the crushed oil filters and has restructured the operation so that the ladle operator is farther from the ladle, according to Bethlehem spokesman G. Ted Baldwin.