Keystone Steel & Wire

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Keystone Steel & Wire Company began in 1889 in a blacksmith shed on a rented farm in Dillon, Illinois. Peter Sommer, who rented the farm, just knew there had to be a better way to make fences. Maintaining wooden fences was one of the toughest chores on any farm, and Sommer realized that, if fences could be made of metal, they would need less work. So he and his sons invented a machine that wove steel into a mesh, and a new industry was born.

The first metal fence Sommer put up attracted a lot of attention from other farmers in the surrounding area. They were impressed with the idea, and business was brisk. The flourishing company rapidly outgrew its original home. It moved to a new location in Peoria, Illinois in 1901, and continued to grow fast.

In 2002, Keystone was Peoria’s second largest employer and one of the largest wire mills in the world. The production plant is about a mile long and measures 2,000,000 square feet. It contains different areas for making steel, wire, and nails, and for drawing, patenting, and galvanizing. In 2006, Keystone’s 1,600 employees produced 650,000 tons of steel, working entirely from pig iron and scrap metal.

Keystone makes all sorts of steel materials for fencing. Besides fencing, their woven steel mesh is also used for reinforcing concrete for constructing buildings and roads.

Any sort of work with hot metal relied heavily on asbestos from the 1920s to the mid-1970s. Keystone Steel was no exception. Testimony from several asbestos trials in recent years has listed many of the items that were used in the wire and steel mills at Keystone.

Asbestos gloves, and other asbestos heat-resistant clothing items such as aprons, were used to protect workers against the hot processes of molten steel.

The pre-formed, half-round insulation that covered the miles of overhead piping contained asbestos. That insulation was covered with pipe mud, which was also asbestos-containing.

The overhead piping needed gaskets, and pumps required packing. If the piping and pumps were for hot processes, the gaskets and packing contained asbestos.

Brick masons lining boilers mixed powdered asbestos into the mortar that held the firebricks in place. Many firebricks also contained asbestos, but not all of them.

Most of these products were dry and flaky, and shed asbestos fibers into the air around the workers. Studies have shown that, even in undisturbed air, asbestos fibers are so light that they can remain floating for as long as a month. They can also float long distances, as far as a mile from where they started. If inhaled, these asbestos fibers can lead to any number of asbestos related illnesses, such as asbestosis or pleural plaques, or even on of a number of deadly forms of asbestos cancer, such as lung cancer or mesothelioma.