Alan Knight, general manager, head of corporate responsibility and sustainable development, shares an experience that has shed new light on the importance of safety and steel's vital role in preventing injury.


A week before Christmas, something unexpected happened to me which changed my perspective on life, both personally and professionally. I would like to share my epiphany with you to highlight something that I, and perhaps many of us, tend to take for granted, but should not: our safety. I for one, have made prioritising safety my New Year’s resolution. Here’s why:

One damp, but otherwise fine Monday evening just before Christmas, I was returning from a business trip and was looking forward to getting home and seeing my better half.

I was driving a Fiat 500 through an unlit section of motorway, when suddenly the lorry in front of me stopped. I changed lane, was accelerating, but after a few seconds the car was spinning across all three lanes. I finally came to rest with my car straddled across the middle of the motorway. The black Peugeot which had been driving behind me, was also perpendicular to the normal direction of traffic. Its rear was touching the central crash barrier and it sported a smashed-in front-left corner. Three corners of my car were smashed too, the back-right most severely, with the wheel displaced and the axle broken.

Although the accident was a horrible experience and I was badly shaken by it, I could not believe my luck! Despite driving in one of the smallest cars in the market, I had, miraculously, walked away from a very speedy collision – and without so much as a scratch on me!

As I sat on the crash barrier trying to process this astonishing fact, blue and yellow lights flashing everywhere, two important facts struck me:

– A few years ago, an accident like this could have seriously injured or even killed me and the Peugeot driver. The safety features engineered into the very steel our cars were made from prevented this from happening.
– Also, I was suddenly acutely aware of the extent to which I take my safety for granted in my daily life.

Having made these realisations, my mind replayed all the fascinating presentations I recalled our colleague Greg Ludkovsky highlighting about the safety benefits of ArcelorMittal’s advanced high strength steel grades and our S-in Motion portfolio of specialised steels for automakers. Greg, who leads our global research and development team had explained, aided by colourful graphics, how various steel grades each with a specific role to play, and positioned in exactly the right place, work together to deliver excellent crash protection. Despite the extensive damage to my car, the doors still opened and closed, true to Greg’s words. I had always found his lectures captivating, but now suddenly, for me, it was my life and my reality.

That incredible crash protection is even more remarkable for the fact that those special steel grades also keep cars light and nippy enough to deliver excellent mileage for drivers. But most importantly, it does all of this while keeping costs low enough to be used in even the most basic car models. This ensures everyone is safe, regardless of whether we drive a Ferrari or a Fiat. This is the most significant point for me, because every life is precious and should be protected.

As soon as I got home that night, I wrote to Greg to acknowledge how his vastly talented team’s work saved my life. The next day, when the reply came back, I was astounded to learn that this model, the Fiat 500, was a special focus for us, and was the first mass market Fiat Chrysler automobile to use Usibor® Press Hardenable Steel – also called hot stamping steel, which prevented my car from being crushed! We put all the virtues of our high strength steel in a very small car and I walked away from a serious accident unscathed, that is, until I cut my finger reaching through the broken window to retrieve my glasses!

This brings me back to the other thought I pondered at the scene of the accident: how not being as careful as we could – and should be – can lead to unnecessary injury.

This is a message often repeated by our head of corporate health and safety, Robin Paulmier. His lectures on the subject then sprang to mind. He argues, quite rightly, that understanding why things go wrong enables us to act to prevent making similar mistakes in the future.

In this case, the insurance companies need the blame to be legally attributed to one of us drivers to settle the matter, and the legality of this does affect your conscience. I found myself wondering:

– Why did the lorry stop in front of me stop?
– Could I have looked harder, accelerated quicker?
– Just how fast was the car that hit me going?

The other two drivers probably asked themselves similar questions. All three of us probably could have done more to avert the accident. Hopefully we will learn from it to navigate such situations more skilfully in the future.

A second and sobering thought for my corporate colleagues, is that accidents are not just the domain of our steel making or mining colleagues. As I discovered, simply driving home from the airport is potentially life changing! Although I will continue doing the trips, I for one will be a lot more sensitive to the risks I take every day.

Indeed, since my own hair raising incident, I learned that a colleague in Italy hit a tree on his way home from work. He was nearly home, but tragically never made it. He died on the spot.

This heart-breaking event proves that not everyone is as lucky as I was and there is always more we can do to stay safe through both technological innovation and increased personal vigilance.

So, when I consider that so many of my colleagues spend their days in steel plants and mines which, by their nature, are full of potential hazards, and that their work makes us all safer, I appreciate just how important the work they do is and how important it is that they take care while doing it – and while commuting to and from work.

So, there we have it, our company saved my life. Our company therefore, must have saved thousands of lives. On behalf of all those who will never know the complexity and genius involved in making lighter and stronger cars, I thank Greg, his team and all those miners and steelmakers who make our daily lives better and safer. Let’s all choose the safest way!