A dispute over safety at ArcelorMittal's Burns Harbor mill has slowed production there, with some union workers refusing to work under what they claim are unsafe conditions.
The dispute started Sunday when 10 workers at a slab caster, which is fed with hot molten steel, invoked their contract rights and refused to work at the job any longer, said John Moloney, USW Local 6787 grievance committee chairman.
"It's a safety issue," Moloney said Tuesday afternoon. "We are doing our best to get it resolved so we don't have to shut the plant down."
ArcelorMittal spokeswoman Mary Beth Holdford said the company recently completed upgrades at the Burns Harbor facility's basic oxygen furnace and continuous caster. These upgrades have computerized many of the functions previously done manually by the workforce.
Holdford said in a statement the upgrades will not result in workforce reductions, and the company hopes to improve operational efficiency and workplace safety.
"Our No. 1 priority continues to be the health and safety of our employees," she said.
The dispute over the casting operation has slowed work at other parts of the mill, Moloney said. Union officials are now occupied with solving the problem in negotiations with management, he said.
The caster involves molten steel, so union members grew concerned about how they were being asked to do that job, Moloney said.
"They were concerned certain parts of the process could go wrong and cause an explosion," he said.
Moloney said management had the option of assigning the 10 workers to another job but chose instead to send them home.
Local 6787 Vice President Pete Trinidad confirmed the union is negotiating over safety issues with management involving strand techs on the caster. He said those workers believe there are inherent dangers in the operation but he would not go into detail. He said work has not stopped at the mill. Trinidad would not comment on workers refusing to work or any possible slowdown in production.
The company confirmed it is working with the United Steelworkers to resolve the issue.
The Burns Harbor operation is an integrated steel mill, meaning it uses blast furnaces and basic oxygen furnaces to process iron ore into steel. That is then processed into steel plate and other products.
Article 3, Section C of the basic labor agreement between ArcelorMittal and Local 6787 lays out the conditions under which union members can refuse work if they feel safety has been compromised. It also lays out the basic steps for settling the dispute. It also states employees who exercise their rights under the section in good faith will not be disciplined.