Weirton Steel Corp.
Weirton Steel, founded in 1909 by Ernest T. Weir and partner James Phillips, rapidly became an industry leader. From humble beginnings with a single tin plate mill in Pennsylvania, after just six years Weir’s outfit was the world’s second-largest tin plate producer in the world. Weir had relocated the company to Holliday’s Cove, West Virginia (now named Weirton in honor of the plant), on the Ohio River, so that it would have access to the immense amounts of water necessary for steel production. By 1918, Weir had acquired several other facilities and expanded operations, renaming the restructured company Weirton Steel Company.
A merger in 1929 formed National Steel from Weirton and two other major producers of steel, Detroit’s Michigan Steel and M.A. Hanna Steel of Cleveland. This new entity rose quickly to become one of the country’s largest producers of steel for the industry and continued its market dominance through the 1960s, pioneering several new processes and expanding operations numerous times.
The 1970s and 1980s saw increased overseas competition and a decline in the market, stressing National Steel to the brink and bringing on the surprising buyout of the Weirton Company by its employees. As the largest employee-owned company of its time, Weirton continued to struggle but kept in business with an initial public offering and modernization program in the 1990s.
Today, as a part of ArcelorMittal, Weirton employs 3,800 workers and is the country’s seventh largest integrated steel producer. As is common in the steel industry, these workers find themselves in a harsh environment with incredibly high temperatures and dangerous materials. Modern safety measures keep workers reasonably secure, but conditions were not always so.
Up to the 1970s, asbestos fibers were commonly used as an insulating material in many industrial settings. Weirton was no exception, using asbestos insulation in safety gear and on equipment in the Holliday’s Cove steel mills. Ironically, the very asbestos that was meant to protect the workers also caused them significant health problems if it found its way into their lungs. It could even travel home on their clothes and in their hair, sometimes causing health problems to form in family members as well. Since the government’s acknowledgement of the dangers of asbestos, its use has been restricted and it has been removed from many industrial settings where just a few years ago, workers had been exposed to large quantities of this dangerous substance.