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An Environmental Lesson From the Japanese

When it comes to government regulations, we are, for the most part, a reactive industry. The U.S. (or state level) Environmental Protection Agency proposes a rule, metalcasters debate it, a compromise of some form is met, and a rule is published. Our industry then spends the time up until the rule’s start date ensuring our facilities are in compliance. For some facilities, compliance is easy. For others, 100% compliance may mean closing.

What about non-regulatory environmental issues?  Is your plant clean and well lit? Could the noise level be reduced?  Is it well organized?

Most metalcasting markets across the globe are in the same position as we are. But from our experience, one metalcasting nation appears to have a different approach—Japan. In a recent tour through some Japanese metalcasting facilities, we were surprised at the environmental investment we saw:

  • In one large-flask nobake facility, employees swept up spilled sand around the flask after finishing a mold, and the molds were moved to an enclosed room for pouring, cool down and shakeout to ensure all emissions were captured.
  • An iron and aluminum facility that exclusively utilizes shell cores had fully enclosed each of its 40 core machines to ensure zero emissions or odor entered the rest of the facility.
  • One high-production iron facility had installed a hood to draw emissions off furnaces during melting and ladles during melt transfer and pouring.
  • All of the plants were built without pits. If a pit were required, manufacturing was raised above ground level.
  • Instead of horns blasting an alert when molten metal was transferred, children’s songs were played.

When we asked one of the metalcasting plant owners about the expense of these types of environmental initiatives, his response (via a translator) was, “The cost is high, but the cost of not doing it is higher. We believe our workers produce better in the best
environment.” Several of the metalcasting facility owners said that approximately 10% of the cost of recent plant expansions/new plant development was targeted toward environmental control. They seemed proud of these environmental investments as much as the new molding lines and furnaces they installed.

For North American metalcasting, a light at the end of the environmental tunnel may one day appear. It will require growth from our government, our communities and us, but it does appear to be possible.


Take and Give

Minnesota Public Radio posted a nice story on Minneapolis’ Smith Foundry this week. Because of the recession, the metalcasting facility’s owner Neil Ahlstrom asked its union for cuts in pay, healthcare, pension contributions and vacation last June. The union agreed to the one-year contract and then to a 6-month extension this summer. In return, Ahlstrom signed a 3-year contract starting January 1, 2011, that reinstates all the workers' benefits and adds pay raises of about 5% over three years.

Smith’s labor negotiations provide a warm example of how an employer and its union workforce can work together to ensure the company—and its jobs—remain in business. The key here is while the union made some concessions, Ahlstrom showed he was committed to returning the benefits and pay his workers were sacrificing.

Similar stories of unions working with metalcasters to stay in business have surfaced as companies fight to survive the recession, including the recent dramatic union change-of-heart that kept Navistar’s Indianapolis engine casting facility open this summer.

We hope and trust that as employees (union and non-union alike) make sacrifices to keep their companies going, their employers will make the appropriate adjustments to wages and benefits as business returns.
 

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