Effect Measure

Manholes return

Three times we have posted on the arcane topic of manhole covers. On the first it was to ask why manhole covers are round. On the second it was to elaborate on the theme of the first post, with reader assistance, and exhibit a stunning examples of manhole cover art with links to others. On the third it was to wonder how it was possible for a person or a dog to get shocked from a metal cover that is literally grounded. All of the posts concerned, at least in part, safety issues.

Jordan Barab, former blogmeister of Confined Space, sends us another important public health aspect of manhole covers. Most manholes used in the US are actually made in India or China:

Seemingly impervious to the heat from the metal, the workers at one of West Bengal’s many foundries relied on strength and bare hands rather than machinery. Safety precautions were barely in evidence; just a few pairs of eye goggles were seen in use on a recent visit. The foundry, Shakti Industries in Haora, produces manhole covers for Con Edison and New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection, as well as for departments in New Orleans and Syracuse.

The scene was as spectacular as it was anachronistic: flames, sweat and liquid iron mixing in the smoke like something from the Middle Ages. That’s what attracted the interest of a photographer who often works for The New York Times ? images that practically radiate heat and illustrate where New York’s manhole covers are born.

When officials at Con Edison — which buys a quarter of its manhole covers, roughly 2,750 a year, from India — were shown the pictures by the photographer, they said they were surprised. (New York Times)

If Con Ed was surprised it is only because they never bothered to think about it. Worker safety is like that. Employers usually don’t care unless some one makes them care. No one made them care about workers in West Bengal. Now they say they do care and will rfewrite their contracts (presumably waiting for the ones in force to elapse) to include “safety requirements.” Requirements is a strong word. Here’s what Con Ed seems to mean by it:

Contracts will now require overseas manufacturers to “take appropriate actions to provide a safe and healthy workplace,” and to follow local and federal guidelines in India, Mr. Clendenin said.

Call me cynical, but I am not optimistic.


  1. #1 M.Randolph Kruger
    November 27, 2007

    They quit making them here because it was too expensive to compete. Ask anyone in the unionized Iron belt what they think of the unions now. We have the safest work environments, but no place to work. Call me cynical.

  2. #2 Abel Pharmboy
    November 28, 2007

    Yep, the one outside my house in an all-American suburb is made in India.

  3. #3 gilmore
    November 28, 2007

    M.Randolph Kruger, you are cynical.

    Unions pushing safety wasn’t the cause of their demise. A new pair of safety glasses every week is cheaper than a lost eye for an employer. Safety pays for itself (in the lawsuit happy US at least).

  4. #4 Susan Och
    November 28, 2007

    They are still making manhole covers in Michigan, at East Jordan Iron Works. Real pretty ones, too, for lots of major municipalities.

    In the 1970’s you could still cruise the alleys of south Buffalo and Lackawanna and see the steel industry in action. I remember driving past an open door one hot summer night and seeing a guy, in jeans and boots but stripped to the waist, using a pole to guide a massive pot of molten steel to the pour. He looked to be some kind of superhuman in some kind of hell, but I suppose he was just getting the day’s work done.

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