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Steel Mill

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"You can't work in a steel mill and think small. Giant converters hundreds of feet high. Every night, the sky looked enormous. It was a torrent of flames — of fire."
Jack Gilbert

A steel mill is one of the closest approximations of Hell on Earth, if Dante's Inferno is used as a yardstick. Since metal work requires extremely high temperatures, a steel mill is a humongous maze of eerie machinery, fiery furnaces, extreme temperatures, molten metal, poisonous gases, foul smells, deafening sounds and, most of all, heavy objects falling from height when least expected.

The steel mill can be either an integrated mill which produces steel from iron ore, or a mini-mill which produces steel from scrap.

The nucleus of the integrated steel mill is the smelting works, which consists of ironworks (a blast furnace, which makes pig iron from iron ore, coke and limestone) and steelworks (either a converter or open hearth furnace, which makes steel from pig iron and scrap), and rolling mill, which prepares the steel products. The latter has typically an electric arc furnace for smelting the scrap and rolling mill for producing the steel products, such as sheet metal, slabs, girders and pipes. Usually the integrated steel mill also has cokeworks for making metallurgical coke from coal, and a chemical plant for further refining the coal tar into various chemicals. The by-product of blast furnace, slag, can be used on making roads, bricks and cement.

Mini-mills have superceded traditional integrated mills rapidly, and they are important scrap recyclers. The electric arc furnace can be considered as a man-made lightning. They are usually located in places where scrap can be easily obtained and where is an abundance of cheap electricity. A mini-mill consists of smelting works (based on electric arc furnace) and rolling mill.

At best, this may be a Big Labyrinthine Building - the Severstal mill at Magnitogorsk, Russia, spreads twelve kilometers along the bank of the Ural River. Real Life steel mills are usually hangar-like, with large open spaces inside, due to the need to move around heavy equipment. At worst, it is a true Nightmarish Factory. Its Dangerous Workplace nature is often displayed by a large X Days Since Last Accident billboard.note  More recent works can depict these mills in a shut-down, boarded-up state to indicate a Dying Town atmosphere.

There are even enormous hydraulic anvils, in case the metaphor is just not anvilicious enough all on its own.


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    Films — Live-Action 
  • The Deer Hunter, where the characters work as steelworkers. The picture was shot in a real steel mill at Mingo Junction, Ohio.
  • The climax of Terminator 2: Judgment Day takes place in one. The molten steel is used to destroy both the T-1000 and the T-800, voluntarily in the latter's case.
  • The droid factory in Attack of the Clones is the scene of a brutal battle between the heroes and their Geonosian adversaries.
  • Saruman runs one at Isengard in The Lord of the Rings. Filmed using real ironworkers in orc costumes, pouring real molten iron, which must have been a nightmare for health and safety.
  • Dwarves also run one at the basement of Erebor in the prologue of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Which qualifies as a Dangerous Workplace with No OSHA Compliance. Dwarves have apparently no concept of occupational safety.
  • In Rudy, the local steel mill is where Rudy's father and brothers work, where he is expected to work, and where his best friend dies in an accident, generously providing the catalyst for Rudy to decide he'd rather be elsewhere.
  • The climactic fight scene from Drunken Master II takes place in a steel foundry.
  • Po has a pivotal encounter with Shen at Shen's foundry in Kung Fu Panda 2
  • Super 8. The steel mill shown only at the beginning has a prominent banner of the ilk of 'X days since the last workplace accident' ... before a worker resets the already not-stellar number for the time to 1. This sets the tone of the movie to come as one where Anyone Can Die.
  • Christian Bale plays a mill worker in the 2013 film Out of the Furnace.
  • Highlander III: The Sorcerer: The climactic fight between Connor MacLeod and Kane takes place in a steel mill.
  • The pivotal scene of RoboCop (1987) occurs in an abandoned yet surprisingly functional steel mill in Old Detroit. The scene was filmed at Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Mill in Monessen, PA.
  • The finale of Cobra has Cobretti fighting the Night Stalker in a steel mill. The latter ends up impaled on a hook and being set on fire by the mill's workings.
  • The opening scene of Days of Heaven takes place in a Chicago steel mill.
  • Flashdance: Alex works as a welder in the local mill. The mill itself isn't portrayed as horrible, it's more to show her as a messy blue collar worker to contrast with her glamorous dance act.

  • The Valley of Decision by Marcia Davenport. She describes the history of a family and a steel mill told from the point of view of a young woman who works for the family for sixty years - from 1873 to 1941.
  • Ganz Unten ("Lowest of the Low") by Günther Wallraff. He describes of the working conditions of Turkish immigrant workers in the post-WWII German steel industry. Reading about one of the workers stumbling at work and falling in the blast furnace is creepy.
  • Jurgis worked in one in Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. He described working in one far more favourably than working in Chicago meatpacking industry.
  • The description given of Hank Rearden's mill in the second chapter of Atlas Shrugged. However, the incredible heat, heavy weights soaring overhead, and so forth are portrayed positively as symbolizing man's creative power and conquest of physical nature. Although a furnace leak later in the book does portray the extreme danger that are inherent in the processes of steel production very well.
  • In a similar vein to Ganz Unten, H. G. Wells's short story "The Cone" involves a disgruntled worker and his boss on a catwalk, viewing the pressure-valve cone on top of a blast furnace. Note to all steel bosses: it's probably best not to stand in front of disgruntled workers when you're overlooking an area that has red-hot metals and searing gases.
  • Life in the Iron Mills by Rebecca Harding Davis follows an unfortunate "puddler" working at an iron mill in 1830s Virginia.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In the third season premiere Buffy the Vampire Slayer gets sent to a hell-factory that has all of these standard tropes, along with Year Inside, Hour Outside.
  • Doctor Who: The Cybermen set up one of these in Victorian London in the Tenth Doctor episode "The Next Doctor".
  • The sports-movie parody sketch from That Mitchell and Webb Look carries the bad research jokes beyond sports by having the characters work in a steel mine, combining the two standard "got to get out of this dead-end town" industries of plucky underdog movies.
  • Mentioned in the backstory of a little-remembered BBC serial called A Very British Coup: the newly-elected Prime Minister's father was employed in one, but one day something went wrong and, as the PM puts it: "He were splashed. By 'ot steel." The company's owners escaped punishment in a wrongful death lawsuit by claiming it was a result of the man's own negligence, a fact about which the Prime Minister is very bitter indeed.
  • Sesame Street has used this clip of a steel I-Beam being forged when an episode is Brought To You By The Letter "I". It's memorably scary for many when they first saw it as a child.

  • Alabama salutes the Pittsburgh steel mill workers in their song "Forty Hours Week"
  • Billy Joel tried for this in his "Allentown" video, but it just came off kind of Ho Yay.
  • Bruce Springsteen in his "Youngstown". The "sweet Jenny" which he refers in that song is not a girl, but the Youngstown Steel and Tube Co. blast furnace named "Jeannette".
  • The folk song The Dalesman's Litany is about the rural population of Yorkshire in the 19th century being forced to work in the rising industrial cities. The steel mills are not described in positive terms.
    I've walked at night through Sheffield lanes, 'twas just as being in hell
    Where furnaces thrust out tongues of fire and roared like the wind on the fell
  • Tom Russell song U.S. Steel, which describes the demise of the steel industry in Homestead, PA.
  • The steelworks of Birmingham were the inspiration for many classic Black Sabbath riffs: band members would lie in bed and listen to the night shift at work, composing rhythms around the regular noises of the drop-hammers and other heavy machinery— quite literally Heavy Metal.
  • Alexander Mosolov's Opus 19, commonly known as "Iron Foundry", is a Soviet futurist orchestral piece that uses iron sheets and orchestral anvils as percussion in addition to traditional instruments. Metallica performed a Symphonic Metal version with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in 2019.

  • William Blake's poem Jerusalem alludes early 19th century foundries as "dark Satanic mills". For apparent reasons.
  • Smoke and Steel by Carl Sandburg.

    Tabletop Games 

    Video Games 
  • The Fallout 3 add-on "The Pitt" gives up what may be the world's last functional steel mill, staffed by slaves in loincloths and sadistic criminals as their foreman. The leader, Ashur, hopes to use the industry provided by the mill to build a self-sufficient empire.
  • Fallout 4 gives us Saugus Ironworks, a foundry that has been brought back into operation by a particularly sadistic band of pyromaniacal raiders known as the Forged.
  • Max Payne blasts through one of these in the third act of his first game. Apart from the other dangerous elements of the Cold Steel Foundry, he also has to deal with hired mercenaries and laser trip mines because it's a front for production of Valkyr as well as having a military bunker underneath the plant.
  • In Batman: Arkham City Batman goes inside Sionis Steel Mill, the first time through a chimney which there's a pool of molten metal below and second time trough the cooling tunnels with rivers of liquid nitrogen, the factory also serves as Joker's main hideout.
  • In Batman: Arkham Origins the Sionis Steel Mill appears again. However, it is not active, merely acting as a front for Black Mask's drug production facility. Batman comes here to rescue Black Mask from the Joker, fighting and defeating Copperhead in the process.
  • In Anarchy Reigns, at Black Side campaign, Jack fights Big Bull in a foundry. Molten metal acts as a environmental hazard.
  • Stage 4 of R-Type III. Filled with compactors, and a hellish maze of molten metal. Which you have to navigate through twice.
  • Final Doom:
    • The TNT/Evilution half features a level inside what could pass as a steel mill, aptly named 'Mill', with hydraulic anvils, super-hot liquid that occasionally burns through a Radiation Shielding Suit and what barely passes for the top of an electric arc furnace.
    • There is also a map call "Steel Works" which is exactly what it says in the map title.
  • Mega Man X series has Flame Mammoth's stage as well as Burn Rooster's stage, both of which are reploid/mechaniloid recycling plants. Several of the scrapped robots in the former are still functioning as they're squashed by a compactor. Naturally, both of them are the fire-themed stages in their games, and Flame Mammoth and Burn Rooster are the fire-using Mavericks of their games.
  • Street Fighter in some of the games Zangief's stage takes place in one.

    Western Animation 
  • In The Simpsons, Homer, worried about Bart's manliness after interactions with a gay shop-keeper, takes him to one of these mills to show him examples of masculinity. It backfired big time as it quickly converts into a gay disco.
  • In an episode of Hey Arnold!, Phil tells the kids about a haunted train that supposedly takes unwitting passengers to Hell at midnight. Naturally, the kids check it out for themselves. It turns out that the train is real, but it goes to a steel mill (presumably to pick up or drop off workers and/or supplies), not hell. But there is also an actual haunted train driven by the ghost of a crazy engineer.

    Real Life 
  • Real Life steel mills are a particularly nasty example of a Dangerous Workplace. On the other hand, the immensely hazardous occupational conditions and the hard physical work are usually compensated with very high pay, and Western steel workers usually have strong union backing.
  • Robert De Niro worked as a steelworker under an assumed name before filming the Deer Hunter, to get a grip of the steelworker's daily life.
  • Tony Iommi worked in a Sheffield steel mill before going Heavy Metal on Black Sabbath fulltime. He famously said that the rhythms and structures of many Sabbath tunes were influenced by industrial noise - the regular rise and fall of the drop-hammer, for instance, became a beat on their eponymous title track, Black Sabbath.