ArcelorMittal accident: 3 bodies found as unions urge company to widen scope of probe

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The company has launched an investigation into the cause of the incident.
The company has launched an investigation into the cause of the incident.
  • A portion of a 90 metre stack at ArcelorMittal's plant in Vanderbijlpark failed fell onto a coke battery control room on Wednesday morning.
  • The bodies of three missing employees, who were on duty in the control room, have been recovered.
  • The unions Numsa and Solidarity are calling for wider investigations, including prior incidents and the state of structures.

The bodies of three missing employees of ArcelorMittal have been recovered, the company confirmed on Thursday.

All three employees succumbed to injuries sustained in an incident at the company's Vanderbijlpark Works on Wednesday morning. A portion of a 90 metre stack at one of the operation's coke batteries failed and fell onto the coke battery control room in which the three employees were working. 

"On behalf of the ArcelorMittal South Africa board, management and employees, our heartfelt condolences and deepest sympathies go to the families and colleagues of the deceased," Kobus Verster, CEO of ArcelorMittal South Africa, said in a statement.

"We are extremely grateful to our own qualified emergency personnel, who arrived on site immediately after the incident occurred and worked through the day and night to complete the recovery operation with the support of local emergency services." 

The families of the employees have been informed and are receiving the necessary support from the company.

The company has launched an investigation into the cause of the incident. All relevant authorities have been notified and have been on site. The company said will cooperate fully with their investigations. 

"The safety of our employees and contractors remains our primary concern. This is an absolute tragedy, and we will do a full and thorough investigation to understand what happened so that we can avoid anything like this from happening again at ArcelorMittal South Africa," said Verster.

The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) said in a statement on Thursday it is mourning the loss of the three workers. The union describes how their families had been waiting and anxiously hoping that their loved ones would be found alive. Numsa is calling on the Department of Employment and Labour to embark on "a detailed and thorough investigation" into the cause of the incident. The union claims one of its shopstewards was previously dismissed "for exposing poor health and safety protocols in the company".

The union also accuses the company of "dragging its feet" with the rescue operation. The company says it briefed Numsa throughout the rescue operation. The company says a claim by Numsa that there was an explosion explosion prior to part of the stack collapsing is not true.

Fin24 reported previously that the Vanderbijlpark works is the largest supplier of flat-steel products in sub-Saharan Africa, where raw materials such as iron ore, coke and dolomite are charged to blast furnaces where and converted to liquid iron.

ArcelorMittal South Africa ceased operations at all its blast furnaces as required by the initial Covid-19-related lockdown regulations and completely stopped production for the first time in the history of the integrated steel industry in the country. However, when operations were allowed to resume, the company decided to temporarily idle the second blast furnace at its Vanderbijlpark Works as demand was expected to be low. During this time, the Vanderbijlpark Works continued to operate with one blast furnace until such time as the second blast furnace was restarted in December 2020 in response to the sharp increase in demand.

Willie Venter, deputy general secretary for the Metal and Engineering sector at Solidarity claims this is the third incident of its kind at ArcelorMittal South Africa's Vanderbijlpark plant during the past 12 months. In his view, the latest occurrence "casts suspicion on the integrity of the buildings and structures of this aged plant".

Solidarity urged the company not to limit its investigation to this particular incident but also include other similar events that have taken place at its operations.

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