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A Cautionary Tale

June 14, 2010
As the metalcasting business revives and workers return, personal protective equipment should get a renewed emphasis.
Prof. Kurt Dyrhaug hopes his serious injury will be persuasive to foundry workers and students who don’t recognize the importance of choosing and wearing effective molding shoes.

Metalcasting is entering its latest revival, according to various studies and numerous anecdotes, from Radford, VA, to Kokomo, IN. Renewed activity means workers returning to the workplace, and in that regard consider the report from ForgeShield Shoes owner Brian Nordin: “We saw a 500% increase in molder boots sold in March 2010 over March 2009 – five hundred percent. Virtually everyone is hiring someone.”

Returning workers and new ones entering the metalcasting industry underscore the imperative for foundry managers to institute and uphold safety standards, and ensure the use of appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE). That development elicits the cautionary tale of associate professor Kurt Dyrhaug, of Lamar University’s Dept. of Art, in Beaumont, TX. In April 2008, Prof. Dyrhaug recalls, he was holding a ladle of molten iron, wearing steel-toe tie-up leather work boots, when the “bott failed. … The ladle overfilled and iron spilled on my left foot.

“I knew I was in trouble immediately,” he details, “Roughly a coffee can full of molten iron spilled on my foot, at roughly 2,500°F. I was not in the frame of mind to untie the boot due to the pain. I focused on getting to water.” By the time help arrived, Dyrhaug continues, “I was flopping around, making it very difficult for colleagues and students to cut laces with a knife. Untying laces was out of the question, even with two people trying to hold me still.”

What followed was a long recovery, from April 2008 to February 2009. It included four skin graft surgeries, over $300,000 in medical expenses, and finally, the amputation of several toes, to say nothing of the terrible pain and time lost from Prof. Dyrhaug’s career and family.

What might have saved Dyrhaug’s foot? “When the accident occurred my peers across the country were shocked, as I have always focused on safety,” he recalls. “What increased the severity of the accident was the fact that I was not wearing ‘molder’ or ‘fast release’ safety shoes. A steel-toe was not enough. Wearing kick-off boots would have helped immensely.”

Now Dyrhaug is trying to educate others, including some shocking pictures of his injury to emphasize the importance of wearing the right shoes for molten metal handling. “I presented a lecture last April at the National Cast Iron Art Conference at Sloss Furnaces in Birmingham, AL. A lot of students and faculty were moved by my story, but it didn’t stop them from wearing incorrect footwear.”

Through a relationship with John Poole, artist-in-residence at Smith Foundry, and with the full support of the Minneapolis shop’s president Neil Ahlstrom, Kurt was able to receive about 15 pairs of unused and/or lightly used ForgeShield molder boots for his students. “Since the safety of our employees is of major concern, the use of kick-off safety shoes is mandatory in the iron pouring areas of Smith Foundry Co,” explains Bruce Fisher, safety purchasing agent. “Even a relatively minor burn injury could mean lost time and medical costs, all of which could easily be prevented or minimized by wearing this type of shoe.”

Fred Kohloff, director of Environmental, Health & Safety for the American Foundry Society, reminds “it has been my recommendation that metalcasting personnel in the metal melting and pouring areas utilize a smooth toe, 6- to 8-in. high, engineer-type safety boot with a built-in metatarsal, that should be easily kicked off in case of metal entrapment. Additionally, pants, leggings or spats should be worn over the shoe to further eliminate molten metal from entering the boot which could cause serous injury or burns.”

AFS PPE recommendations can be found in the AFS publication “Guide for Selection and Use of Personal Protective Equipment & Special Clothing for Foundry Operations.”

But, are leggings, pants and spats enough? No, according to a variety of metalcasters interviewed for this report.

Deb Skarlupka of United Machine & Foundry in Winona, MN, points out that “there are times when leggings aren’t enough and hot molten metal can spill into the boot. Sometimes the leggings will move during the work day and expose the boot area,” she continues, “so if molten metal does spill, the boots need to be kick-offs.”

Seneca Foundry’s Stephanie Kruger adds, “Spats can give the melted iron a place to sit on your leg, like a pocket, which can burn.”

Smith Foundry’s Fisher continues that, “in our company, iron is poured at a temperature of well over 2,000°F … at this temperature, it can still burn through leather leggings, as well as shoes.”

Jodi Griffith, with the Wellsville Foundry in Ohio, states that “the spats or leggings are made to fit most — and not each individual — so they are not always the best protection available; the fit can vary, and therefore so can the protection that they offer.”

Amaury Mendez, human resources manager at Castwell Products in Skokie, IL, explains “we do use spats in some areas where employees are working with molten iron, but if for some reason the hot iron goes under the spats, the employee (with kick-offs) can take their shoes off right away.”

Ken Damewood at Northern Iron & Machine in St. Paul, observes that “iron has the ability to get behind leggings or spats, or can still get through flame resistant pants, so the need for ‘kick-offs’ is always there.”

Finally, Jane Page, human resource manager at Advanced Cast Products for 19 years, summarizes that “spats may work alone, but why take the chance when you are talking about someone’s life. The effects of some injuries may last a lifetime.”

Does wearing a “fast-release” or “kick-off” style work shoe make a difference? Castwell Products’ Ms. Mendez confirms it does. “Yes, I have an employee who was working with hot metal and a splash of molten iron went inside of his shoes. He was able to take the kick-off shoes off right away and his feet didn’t get burned. The hot metal burned his sock, not his skin.”

Bruce Fisher from Smith Foundry reports of “a few instances over the years where the kick-off style has saved an employee from serious injury. Not only is there a concern of iron splashing onto the shoes from the top, but there is the possibility of stepping on the molten iron, thus burning from the bottom.”

Bonnie Rogers at Branchfield Castings in Illinois tells of several instances when wearing kick-off boots saved an employee from more serious injury. “If a mold runs out there is not enough time to move,” she says.

“I have seen several employees with burns on top of their feet,” agrees Deb Skarlupka at United Machine & Foundry. “Since they were able to kick off their boots quickly, it did minimize the degree of the burn.”

Professor Dyrhaug hopes that his story might be the wake-up call that foundry workers need to make themselves aware of the importance of PPE. Kick-off or fast release footwear is essential safety gear for anyone working around molten metal –in a classroom or in a commercial operation of any size. “I am most concerned that this should not happen to anyone in the future, particularly a student,” the professor says.