The American steel industry has seen its share of ups and downs, but the steelworker has remained a steadfast symbol of strength over the years. In the United States, steel production saw its heyday from the late 1880s into the early- and mid-1900s.
During this time, the country produced millions of tons of steel each year. Much of that was used to build infrastructure, manufacture construction hardware and create some of America’s most iconic city skylines.
Throughout this period, the American steel industry became very lucrative for businessmen, but for workers, a job working in a steel mill wasn’t always enjoyable or safe. Although America does not produce nearly as much steel today thanks to refined manufacturing processes and the availability of alternative alloys and polymers, the steelworker remains rooted in America’s history, myths and legends.
Working Conditions For Steel Workers Of The Past
Steel workers who manned the open-hearth and regenerative furnaces of old often worked long hours in difficult conditions. Steel industrialist Andrew Carnegie, famous namesake of the performing arts center in New York, was thought of by some as a rather uncaring overseer.
For all the good that Carnegie did in his life and all that continues to be done in his name, the man developed a reputation for treating steelworkers poorly and paying low wages. Many steelworkers around the turn of the century were earning slightly above what was considered a poverty wage for the era.
Steel for Buildings, Bridges And Tanks
In the late 1880s, the Brooklyn Bridge was built, becoming the first steel suspension bridge in the world. Skyscrapers also began cropping up around this time, each growing higher than the last. Steel workers who worked on these projects performed at dizzying heights as they joined together beams, girders and other steel structural support hardware.
Working conditions and pay continued to be issues that caused life expectancy among steel workers to remain low throughout the early part of the 20th Century; however, unions also played a large role in making changes for steelworkers around this time.
By 1942, the United Steel Workers Union was formed. Through this organization, steelworkers could voice concerns about safety and working conditions, fight for better pay and benefits and enjoy a higher standard of living.
During WWII, steel and steel workers played prominent roles in the war effort. Copper was needed to support American troops, so pennies were melted down and replaced with steel versions of the one-cent piece. Steel was also used by the ton to manufacture tanks and other military gear that played instrumental roles in winning the fight.
Steel Workers In The Digital Age
Today, steel workers are still vital to America’s economy. Although the role of a steel worker still requires a lot of grit and determination, safety standards, unionization and labor laws have made working at a steel plant or working with steel in construction much safer and more enjoyable.
“Digital transformation” is a term that’s been used to describe the process of transitioning workplaces and workforces from traditional ways of working to digital processes and equipment. This kind of transformation is taking place in the steel industry as computers can now take detailed and accurate measures in steel plants. Worksites can be monitored for progress and safety using remote technologies.
What digital transformation means for the modern steel worker is a safer work environment that also supports greater efficiency. As digital technologies continue to evolve within the steel industry, products will likely become stronger and work will only grow more consistent.
Although much of the world’s steel now comes from China, United States steel is still a force to be reckoned with in the American manufacturing sector. Steelworkers remain essential to the world economy, and no one questions whether they will continue to be vital for decades to come.