Mike Rowe Tours the Backbone of America

by Jennifer Shea

In a new episode of “How America Works,” TV host Mike Rowe takes a tour through the backbone of America, which is buttressed by steel.

Americans forge over 72 million tons of steel per year. The metal undergirds our cityscapes, our highways and our power lines. And right now, demand for it is reaching record highs. So some steel plants are running literally 24/7 to keep up with the demand for their product.

Rowe visited one such plant recently, where scrap inspector Mark Bell, switchman Fidel Villagomez and melt shop operator Jeff Rose labor to meet their employer’s 5,000-tons-per-day quota.

Mike Rowe Tours Steel Plant in Texas

At Gerdau Steel in Midlothian, Texas, production needs have jumped from 3,000 tons of steel per day to 5,000 tons per day, according to Rowe. And that means the plant has to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week to stay on top of demand.

Thanks to its hundreds of employees, the plant is able to convert thousands of tons of scrap metal into steel every day. Gerdau processes 150 truckloads of scrap steel daily.

The scrap steel comes in on trucks. Then it goes through a shredder, which churns at an average rate of about 175 to 200 tons per hour. But first, Bell and his colleagues have to inspect the truckloads for impurities. They make sure Gerdau doesn’t pay too much for them.

They’re looking for about 70 percent actual ferrous metal material, Bell explained. But some truckloads of scrap have more impurities than others, which makes his job more difficult.

Radiation, 3,000-Degree Temperatures Among the Hazards of Steelworkers’ Jobs

Meanwhile, Villagomez’s job – of lining up rail cars in a specific “recipe” to feed into the melt shop – is made more complicated by the occasional radiation alarm. They want to keep radioactive material out of the melt shop at all costs. So they then perform further checks to see how hot the material is.

As for Rose, he has the dangerous job of patching up the insulated bowl which is loaded with about 200,000 pounds of scrap steel and then charged with 70,000 amps of electricity, melting the metal inside into a pool of molten steel. (The steel is poured off and cast into billets elsewhere.) Wearing protective gear, he climbs up a ladder and peers over into the furnace, then patches it with a concrete-like material to protect the weak spots from eroding further.

All in all, steelworkers play a vital role in American life. Without their jobs, America would be a very different country. So as you travel a highway or ascend a tall building, spare a thought for workers like Bell, Villagomez and Rose, without whose efforts none of it would be possible.

Watch Rowe tour the steel plant here: