“Forge worker” is a broad-term category for occupations that work with the heating, forming, shaping, alloying, and processing of metals. While many identify with the position as a blacksmith, true blacksmiths work only with iron and steel in a smaller setting. The job of forge workers encompasses all metals and all environments, including large factories and commercial forges. Forge workers toil in high-heat environments and with extremely hot materials. In some cases, metals are heated until they are red or white, but still solid. This makes them more malleable so they can be shaped by hammers or with high-pressure mechanical presses, called press forging. Another type of forging uses heavy pressurized rollers instead of hammers or presses. In drop forging, the hot metal is dropped into the center of two dies that are driven together with mechanical hammers. Other types of forging require the metals to be heated to the point where they liquefy into a molten form. The molten metal can then be poured into dies so the metal forms into the shape of the dies.
Because forge workers operate in high heat environments with red-hot materials, protection and insulation is required. Insulation is used not only for the direct protection of forge men, but it is used to help prevent fires from breaking out. This insulation is used in protective clothing and gear such as boots, gloves, headwear, and aprons. The insulation is also used on the machinery and the buildings.
Asbestos and Forge Work
One of the most effective forms of insulation against heat and fire is asbestos. Asbestos was regularly used in private and commercial forges for most of the 20th century. It is lightweight, cheap, and very effective. Unfortunately, asbestos can flake off into microscopic fibers that can become airborne and breathed into the body. Forge men and any others working in the steel mills, ironworks, or even smaller forges were at great risk of being exposed to asbestos during the course of a regular day.
In the 1980s, new laws were passed that made it illegal to manufacture new asbestos products or use asbestos products in the workplace. This reduced asbestos exposure for forge men, but it did not completely eliminate it. Old insulating products are still used in some forges and because asbestos fibers can be microscopic, they can still be lurking in dark corners and nooks of factories. Old machinery that has not required servicing in several years can also harbor asbestos.