October 13, 2008

‘No Escaping Hell”


Foundry facts A foundry is a factory that produces metal castings from either ferrous or nonferrous alloys. Metals are turned into parts by melting the metal into a liquid, pouring it into a mold, then removing the mold material or casting. The most common metal alloys processed are aluminum and cast iron. However, other metals, such as steel, magnesium, copper, tin and zinc, can be processed. Casting is most often used for making complex shapes that would be otherwise difficult or uneconomical to make by other methods. Casting is a 6,000-year-old process. The oldest surviving casting is a copper frog from 3200 B.C.

On a cool, early autumn morning, the sun has yet to clear Dubuque's horizon. At 6 a.m., the sky still is dark. Inside a small Dubuque foundry, it glows and the sound of machinery rumbles, whirs and pounds.

At the Morrison Bros. Co. foundry, located at 550 E. Seventh St., Jack Champion and Keith Richardson toil. Combined, they have nearly 80 years of foundry experience.

The foundry produces aluminum and brass castings from molds. The castings range in weight from a few ounces to up to 75 pounds.

"Ninety percent of all manufactured goods have at least one casting as a part of it," said George Doremus, foundry general superintendent.

Richardson smiles knowingly.

"Some places it's hard work, and some places it ain't that bad," he said. "It depends on what kind of updated machinery they got. If they got the old-time machinery, then you've got to work hard. That's why they call it the backbone of America - the foundry. If it wasn't for them, you wouldn't have anything. It starts here in a foundry, and it goes on the planes, barges and trains. Everybody thought that they were the backbone, but they ain't. It's right here."

A worker pours molten aluminum heated to 1,350 degrees (liquid brass ceilings to 2,250 degrees). He wears steel-toed shoes, leggings that cover the shoes, a leather apron and gloves, and safety glasses and a shield. Workers wear cotton clothing - no polyester because it melts, cotton merely burns.

"It's challenging work, pretty tough," said Champion, who is entering his 31st year with the company. "Physically wise, it's pretty demanding. It can be in the warm weather."

In warm weather, employees are encouraged to drink water - lots of it. When the temperature climbs above a certain temperature, the company supplies Gatorade.

"They used to give us salt tablets," Champion said. "When it hits 100 degrees outside, it could be 120 inside when you're pushing around molten metal. It gets pretty hot, and real challenging."

"It's one hot sucker when you're pouring," Richardson said.

Champion welcomes the cooler temperatures.

"This time of the year is the gravy part of the job, the better weather," he said.

There's a reason the work day begins at 6 a.m. and concludes at 2:30 p.m., mainly because of the heat.

And the early days have their benefits.

"At 2:30 p.m., you have plenty of time to do what you want," Champion said.

Champion is called a "utility operator" - meaning he does all the jobs.

"I don't know what I'll be going to do until I come in and punch the clock," Champion said.

Richardson could say the same thing.

"There are different jobs we can do," he said. "You gotta be experienced. You should be experienced on every job that you possibly can be in a foundry because the more experience you got, that's better for the company."

A U.S. Navy veteran, Champion worked as an engineman in the bowels of the USS Nimitz, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Sixteen-hour days were common. He initially worked at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville's grounds crew for a while before a relative got him the job at Morrison Bros. He's been there ever since.

Champion recalled his first days on the job.

"It was intimidating at first," he said. "You were thinking more of your own safety than on making a good casting. You have to know what you're doing every second just to keep safe."

The work is meticulous and detail-oriented.

"It's a lot of the same thing over and over again, but the day goes good," Champion said. "You have a good day's work, they give you a good day's wages."

The average wage is $16 per hour.

"I'm 58 years old. Where else am I going to make that kind of money I'm making now?" Richardson said.

Richardson points out every foundry is different.

"Some are clean, some are dirty," he said. "This is the cleanest one I've ever worked in."

Richardson's grandfather, A.J. Smith, worked in two foundries - one in Galena, Ill., and one in East Dubuque, Ill. His three brothers have worked in foundries, too. He believes foundry work is in his blood.

Doremus said there is a misconception about the environmental hazards foundries pose. The EPA has mandates - national emission standards for hazardous air pollutants. So does the Occupational Safety & Health Administration.

"We're under the radar to the general public in terms of understanding who we are and what we do," he said. "We're not this big, insidious polluter. It's an image people get. Brass is smoky, generally speaking. In people's minds, foundries get a bad rap."

Doremus said the industry has undergone numerous changes since the early 1990s.

"Lighting, ventilation, lifting, material handling have all improved," he said.

However, the foundation is the company's employees. There are 15 on the foundry floor, and three as part of the management team.

Tom Daughetee, a process technician, has been with Morrison Bros. for 12 years. His grandfather retired from the company in 1972. In his 12 years, the company has reduced waste while making the company safer and more efficient.

"You have to have respect for all the operations out here," he said. "You cannot become complacent. You have to be paying attention. It can become dangerous in a hurry."

Daughetee said improvements to the business have increased productivity.

"The better the machinery got, the more product goes out - and that's what they want," Richardson said.

Champion agreed.

"Years ago when I first started, it was more quantity of the work you did," he said. "Now it's more of the quality because of all the foundries that are closing and going overseas, so we have to try to compete and make a good casting, a good product."

Originally published by CRAIG D REBER TH staff writer/[email protected]

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