Centrifuge spewed melted brass, hurting workers and blowing out part of brick wall at Saukville plant, officials say
Eight employees — one more than initially reported — at Johnson Brass and Machine Foundry in Saukville were injured Monday when a machine failed and sprayed molten brass throughout an area of the factory and onto workers, the company’s CEO said Tuesday.
The foundry at 270 N. Mill St. is about two blocks north of the intersection with Highway 33.
Two of the injured workers were transported to the Columbia St. Mary’s Burn Center in Milwaukee by Flight for Life helicopters, which landed in a steady rain on the baseball field of nearby Grady Park.
Another foundry worker was transported by ambulance to the burn center.
Officials said the other employees were transported to Aurora Medical Center in Grafton for treatment. One of those victims was later transferred to the burn center.
The company said four employees remained hospitalized as of Tuesday night, but none have life-threatening injuries. The workers who received treatment at Aurora were released Monday.
According to Saukville Fire Chief Gilly Schultz, the accident happened shortly after 4 p.m. as workers were pouring melted brass into a centrifuge tumbler.
“At that point, there was an explosion in the vessel. We don’t know why. The force was so strong it blew out a section of a brick wall,” Schultz said.
“I understand they did two other pours that morning and there was no problem.”
Schultz said during the late afternoon pour, six workers who were standing on a platform were thrown by the concussion of the blast and were burned by the scattered molten metal. He said he was told melted brass can reach temperatures as high as 2,100 degrees.
“There was a small fire, which our guys were able to put out using dry-chemical fire extinguishers,” Schultz said.
A news release issued by the company Tuesday took issue with the description of the incident as an explosion.
“Instead, a machine malfunctioned spraying liquid metal around the plant floor, striking workers in their legs and backs,” the company release said.
A preliminary report issued by the Saukville Police Department characterized the accident as “a catastrophic failure of a piece of machinery,” saying the accident was not considered a criminal matter.
A state fire marshal was called in Monday night to investigate the incident, but that inquiry was suspended when the case was turned over to federal investigators with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The plant was evacuated shortly after the blast, but authorities said it reopened Monday evening.
No neighboring homes were evacuated.
Although the foundry is only a block away from Saukville Elementary School, officials said the incident did not disrupt classes because it occurred well after students were dismissed for the day.
Mill Street was blocked off at Highway 33 for about two hours, snarling commuter traffic through the village.
Emergency responders were on the scene until about 6:30 p.m.
Schultz said his department received support from firefighters and ambulance personnel from Port Washington, Grafton, Cedarburg, Mequon, Thiensville, Fredonia, Waubeka, Belgium and Jackson.
Johnson Brass is a family-owned business that has been in operation since 1905. It specializes in the production of cast metal and wrought alloy parts.
Schultz, who has been with the Saukville Fire Department for 37 years, said the company does not have a history of problems.
“I can’t remember the last time we were called there for an incident,” he said.
That sentiment was echoed by the company’s statement.
“For more than 100 years, my family has taken great pride in our safety record and our close relationship with our employees,” company president and CEO Lance Johnson said in the statement.
“As the fourth president of the family-owned business, I can say we are deeply saddened by the accident at our plant yesterday.”
Image information: A JOHNSON BRASS and Machine Foundry employee hurt when molten metal spewed from a centrifuge Monday was loaded onto a medical helicopter that landed near the factory in Saukville’s Grady Park. Photo by Mark Jaeger