Visit from the former boss

How the workplace has changed: Pensioner Hans Hausmann meets former shift colleagues at the Beeckerwerth hot strip mill in Duisburg

Duisburg. It’s not necessarily the case that everyone is happy to see their former boss when he comes to visit a few years later. But they are at hot strip mill II at ThyssenKrupp’s Beeckerwerth plant. Axel, Stefan and Jürgen even give Hans a quick hug, a firm slap on the back, a manly greeting, “Everything ok?“, “sure, got to keep going.” Hans Hausmann, almost 79 years old, sits down and smiles: “These guys are almost like sons to me.” He then looks through the glass windows down into the huge shop and says more quietly:
“As if it were yesterday. I cast the first slab here in spring 1964.”

A year without accidents

That was almost 50 years ago. And the NRZ newspaper has taken the opportunity presented by the reunion of the former colleagues to compare the world of work then and now. The biggest difference is in the shop itself: Back then there were only two furnaces with twelve men working each shift; now there are six – furnaces and employees. Frank Struska (48) has been there since 1984, meaning that Hausmann trained him. He now holds the impressive job title of “Senior Engineer” and knows the facts: “Nowadays, safety is the most important issue on the shift – all over the plant. Here in hot strip mill II we have now gone an entire fiscal year without a single day lost to accidents.”

The shop is suddenly lit by an incredibly bright light as a furnace opens and one of the slabs is discharged onto the roller table. Temperature: 1,280 degrees Celsius, weight: more than 30 tons, dimensions: ten meters long and 26 centimeters thick. Later on, the slab will be rolled – and will then be just 2 mm thick, but a kilometer long. This is the sheet our cars are made from. Hausmann says: “Of course we were careful back then, too. But…it’s better now really.”

The working hours have probably also helped in terms of safety. The men still work eight-hour shifts, as they did then, but they used to have a 7-7-7 pattern – seven days each of early, day and night shifts, then four days off. A two-day pattern is used now which is less physically and mentally draining according to the experts – and that’s confirmed by the men. And how does the money compare? Hausmann, who is blessed with an excellent memory, knows the figure straightaway: “I earned 4.20 to start with. That’s deutschmarks.” Axel grins: “It’s a bit more now. We get between 14 and 17 euros these days.” And how effective is the work? Frank Struska says: “It’s difficult to compare. Recently we produced 7,932 tons in one shift. In the 80s it was 4,200 tons on average.” While everything was done by hand in the early days, it’s now all done by computer. However, that doesn’t mean that the men don’t have to work really hard any more. Leftover slag still has to be scraped out of the furnace by hand every now and then.

Hans Hausmann (2.f.r.) with former employees and some colleagues of the hot strip mill Bruckhausen today: from left Stefan Heilmann, Norbert Quicker, Axel Eckardt, Jürgen Terlau und Frank Struska. (Photo Ilja Höpping / WAZ FotoPool)

Sweeping the courtyard as a punishment

And going for a beer together after the shift? Hausmann says: “We often used to go to “Tante Emma” in Bruckhausen afterwards. However, the increase in police checks on the roads quickly put a stop to that. Back then people sometimes also had a beer or even a schnapps during the shift. It was forbidden back then too but then came the “complete ban on alcohol”. Frank says: “Everyone sticks to that. We rarely go to the pub after work now. We’re more likely to play skittles or a soccer tournament.”

Hausmann goes over to the control room with Struska. The moment of truth. What was he like as a shift foreman? Stefan grins: “Hard but fair. If you screwed up, he handed you a broom. I’ve swept a few square kilometers here.” Axel nods: “Luckily he smoked cigars, so you could always smell when he was coming from a long way off.” The three laugh, but then become serious again: “Firstly, we always had fun with him. And secondly, he always defended us from external pressure and ensured we didn’t get any hassle. And that’s exactly what makes a good boss, isn’t it?”

By Matthias Maruhn, NRZ