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Recent news accounts of injuries and fatalities have focused attention on the safety record of the plastics processing industry. A regional office of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, for example, has undertaken a pilot safety program targeting rubber and plastics plants near St. Louis. The effort is geared toward curtailing what the OSHA office saw as an extremely high death and injury rate in those industries.

There is some basis for concern about the safety of plastics workers.

Federal records show that U.S. plastics workers have suffered illnesses and been injured at higher rates than the average for manufacturing industries.

But the gap between plastics and other industries is closing. During the past two decades many processors, labor groups and equipment makers have been working to eliminate unsafe practices and products.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics compiles injury and illness data on all U.S. industries.

The findings are broken out in a number of ways, including by Standard Industrial Classification code. By using SIC codes to sort through data, comparisons can be made between industries and, to some extent, within different segments of the same industry.

Producers of plastic products (SIC 308) averaged an injury and illness incidence rate of 12.7 per 100 full-time-equivalent workers in 1995, the latest year for which statistics are available. The injury and illness rate for manufacturing industries as a whole averaged 11.6, while all industries combined averaged 8.1.

The differences may be linked to the unique processes used in plastics.

``Plastics companies are making small pieces with small parts and a lot of human contact,'' said Sharon Penland, a product director for Fireman's Fund Insurance Co. of Novato, Calif., who had been doing research and development programs for the plastics industry insurance products until earlier this year.

Such work exposes employees to machine dangers, as well as repeated-trauma injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome.

``In plastics there is a lot more of hand trimming and cutting,'' she said. ``In metal industries you don't have that kind of trimming.''

Certain segments of the plastics industry were more dangerous to workers than others.

Workers in plastic pipe factories were more likely to get hurt by or sick from their jobs in 1995, experiencing an injury and illness rate of 14.8 per 100 full-time workers. Producers of plastic plumbing fixtures also had a relatively high rate of injuries and illnesses with 14.7.

The process with the lowest injury and illness rate was film and sheet production, at 8.7. But a closer look shows those processors had a much higher rate of amputation injuries than those in any other type of plastics production.

Resin compounders also recorded a lower-than-average injury and illness rate for manufacturers, with 9.9. Resin makers recorded an even lower rate, at 4.9.

While plastics may have a worse injury and illness record than manufacturing in general, the gap has been closing in recent years.

In 1978, plastics recorded almost five more worker injuries and illnesses per 100 full-timers than the average for manufacturing — recording an 18.1 rate compared with 13.2.

In 1995, the plastics industry recorded just one more injury or illness per 100 full-timers than the manufacturing average.

One simple reason for the trend is that machines are getting safer, said Walt Bishop, staff director in charge of the Machinery Division of the Washington-based Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.

``The gap is closing because safety technology is catching up with the production technology of the machines,'' he said.

In the old days, machine companies and processors wanted machines that could produce good parts at a high speed, Bishop said, noting safety concerns were addressed in later stages of the design process.

But the outbreak of product liability litigation in the 1980s helped serve as a warning to the industry, Bishop said.

Frank Nissel, president and chief executive officer of sheet extrusion machine maker Welex Inc. of Blue Bell, Pa., agreed.

``It is the product liability suits that one sees that are helpful in pointing out safety hazards that we were not aware of,'' Nissel said.

``We always have tried very hard to think of all the possible ways somebody could get injured, but there is always one more way.

``I almost feel with some of the accidents that happen, it's like you take a car, ram it into a telephone pole and hurt yourself. Then you complain to the car manufacturer that they built an unsafe car. We're working on taking the telephone poles off the side of the road,'' Nissel said.

Another driver for product safety is the often stiffer regulatory schemes in Europe, Nissel said, adding that his company is building all its machines using the ``best'' of both the U.S. and European standards.

Davis-Standard Corp. of Pawcatuck, Conn., also builds most of its extruders, blow molding machines and other machines to European safety standards, according to Ed McGrady, vice president of manufacturing and Standards Committee chairman for SPI's Machinery Division.

European standards, which McGrady described as more ``quantified'' than many U.S. industry codes, have a direct impact on the machines built for U.S. consumption.

``If you put a safety feature on a machine for Europe, you better have a good reason why you

didn't put it on an American machine,'' he said, adding there is a push to create more universal standards as economies become more global.

Some of the gradual increase in safety could be from the gradual removal of humans from some jobs.

``There is a lot more automation than in the past,'' said Penland of Fireman's Fund. ``Machines do more and more,'' she said, noting that automated resin supply systems have reduced the number of incidents in which workers have gotten caught in the material hoppers of processing machines.

While the average rate of illness and injuries to plastics workers was worse than the average for manufacturing as a whole, plastics compares very well to competing materials such as metals, wood, concrete and glass.

The metal industries were particularly hazardous to their workers. When the manufacturing SIC codes are broken down by material, iron, steel and aluminum industries dominate the top 30 spots in terms of the highest rates of worker injuries and illnesses. The plastics segment with the worst safety record — pipe — comes in at No. 32 when ranked in this manner.

SIC codes are not set up for easy comparison of similar products by differences in manufacturing material. But in some cases the codes for plastics match up with those used for competing materials.

In general terms the code for ``miscellaneous plastics products not elsewhere classified'' is similar to ``fabricated metal products not elsewhere classified.'' Comparing the injury rates for the two codes shows metal fabricators had an injury and illness rate of 16.8 per 100 full-time workers, significantly higher than plastics' 13.4 rate.

Other competing materials also have higher injury and illness rates.

The ``concrete products not elsewhere classified'' category has an injury and illness rate of 15. ``Steel pipe and tubes'' is even higher, with a rate of 15.9. So while pipe-making is the most dangerous subindustry for plastics workers, it appears to be even more dangerous for people who make steel products.

Those statistics are born out in the field, according to Myles Culhane, safety director of Ameron International Corp. of Pasadena, Calif. Ameron makes fiberglass, steel and concrete pipe.

``Our injuries are generally greater on the steel and concrete pipe side of the business,'' Culhane said. ``Concrete and steel pipe is so large, so heavy, we experience increased back injuries and muscle strains.''

Different production requirements also contribute to the different injury statistics.

``The equipment we use [for steel and concrete] is larger,'' he said. ``The pipe is generally poured vertically, so our employees are required to work on elevated surfaces that are often 23-30 feet above the floor. Fall protection is a major component of our safety program.''

Greater amounts of heat and other kinds of energy are needed to work steel, which increases the risk of workers getting hurt.

``Steel pipe is welded, so it involves a lot of hot work,'' he said. ``It's cut, it's ground. We see a lot of foreign bodies in the eyes and lacerations to flesh. All these become magnified when making concrete and steel pipe, when compared to fiberglass pipe. That is simply a fact of life.''

Fiberglass production still involves some hazards, Culhane said.

``The injuries we do experience in fiberglass pipe include strains, cuts, lacerations, foreign bodies in eyes, but not to the extreme and not as frequent'' as concrete and steel pipe operations, he said.

``Extruded aluminum products'' — which include window profiles — appear slightly less worker-friendly than the similar ``unsupported plastics profiles and shapes,'' with an illness and injury rate of 12.9, compared with 12.5 for plastics.

Resin production came in significantly safer than the equivalent SIC codes for metals.

Of all the manufacturing SIC codes in which plastics or a competing material were specified, ``plastics materials and resins'' registered the lowest injury and illness rate, with 4.9. Foundries that churn out the analogous metal products were on the opposite end of the scale with injury and illness rates in the mid- to high-20s.

``Wood products not elsewhere classified'' appear somewhat safer than their plastics counterparts, with an injury rate of 12.6. But some wood products — like ``prefabricated wood buildings'' and ``structural wood members'' rank far worse.

Most types of paper producers also fared better than the equivalent plastics industry, although some plastics and paper products — especially packaging materials — are lumped together in the same SIC code.

Different processes used with the different materials may account for varying injury rates.

``There are fewer intrinsic hazards in the process,'' Mike Wright, a safety specialist with the United Steelworkers of America in Pittsburgh, said of plastics as compared to metal production. ``But there certainly are some nasty ones in plastics.''

But for Wright, comparing safety statistics between industries misses a major point.

``In my experience, the biggest differences are not between industries, but between the best and worst plants within an industry,'' Wright said. ``The difference between the best and worst plastic plant will be much higher than the difference between plastics as a whole and, let's say, steel as a whole.''

When it comes to worker injuries and illnesses, the size of the establishment has an interesting effect on incidence rates.

For most industries, the injury and illness rates follow a bell curve as size increases. The rates are low for the smallest plants, reach a peak in the 50- to 249-employee range and tail off as the work force increases.

But in plastics, there is an extra hump to the curve.

Those processors with 11-49 employees averaged an injury and illness rate of 11.5 — below the 12.7 rate for all plastics establishments. The number increases in the low-middle range and goes back down again for plants with 250-999 employees.

Then, as the number of employees goes over 1,000, there is a spike upward in the rate to 17.1. That number goes even higher — to 20.4 — for SIC 3089 (``miscellaneous plastics products not elsewhere classified'') category.

Sampling error — including the likelihood that the BLS survey netted the least-safe plastics plants with more than 1,000 workers — could produce a result that does not really match the industry. But that still means there are at least a few processors with very poor safety records. The BLS does not publish any numbers that have a sample size less than 15 establishments.

Nonsampling error also could come into play. Bigger plants generally have more resources devoted to safety issues and record keeping. Those establishments are not necessarily more prone to injuries, but could be recording a higher percentage of them. But that consideration alone does not explain why large plastics plants have worse records than other large manufacturing plants.

In fact, a relatively few unsafe plants could be hurting the industry's record as a whole.

At least 25 percent of all plastics plants had no reportable injuries in 1995. And at least half had injury and illness rates below 5.1 — 21/2 times less than the industry average.

On the negative side, 25 percent of plastics processors produced injury and illness rates above 15.

The plastics processing industry has been among the leading contributors to work-related, repeated-trauma disorders — such as carpal tunnel syndrome and tendinitis — according to BLS. Out of all industries, plastics processors produced the sixth-highest number of such disorders in 1995 and 1993, and the fifth-highest total in 1994.

More than 5,900 plastics workers suffered from repeated-trauma illnesses in 1995, down from 6,000 in 1994 and 6,600 in 1993, according to BLS tallies.

In comparison, motor vehicle and equipment makers, which had only 36 percent more workers than plastics processing, had eight times the number of repeated-trauma illness.

When going by injuries involving days away from work, plastics has a higher rate for carpal tunnel syndrome than manufacturing as a whole, with 12.8 per 10,000 full-time workers, compared with 9.6 for manufacturing in 1994, the latest figures available.

Other types of injuries were more prevalent in plastics than in other industries.

Plastics workers experienced much higher rates of amputations in 1994 than other manufacturers, with a rate of 7.1 incidents per 10,000 workers, compared with 3.7 for manufacturing and 1.5 for all industries.

Within the industry, plastic sheet and film plants recorded an extremely high number of amputations — 161 in 1994, giving a rate of 27.3 per 10,000 full-timers, though those plants have the lowest overall injury and illness rates among plastic processors.

``We've had very, very few [injury cases] reported,'' Welex's Nissel said. ``The majority of cases we have are hands getting caught in rollers, in spite of all the guards and safeties.''

Some firms have been successful in reducing injuries.

Washington-based SPI gives awards to companies that report either no or reduced numbers of injuries or illnesses in a year. Of the 610 plants participating in the SPI program for 1995, 131 reported no injuries, 72 reported no injuries or illnesses involving lost work days and 105 showed a lower-than-industry-average rate while reducing injuries and illnesses by at least 20 percent compared with 1994.

While machine-related incidents do not account for a majority of injuries and illnesses, the number of injury-free plants also is likely to rise as new industry safety standards for machines are retrofitted to older equipment.

``We now have established safety standards for these various pieces of equipment that have been accepted,'' Welex's Nissel said. ``They do call for all machines built prior to a certain time to be brought up to the new standard.''

But such an effort may take some time — and a lot of money — to accomplish.

``In many cases this is not practical,'' Nissel said, ``at least not economically for the user. It's like telling all old-car owners they need to add air bags. There's no way we can practically enforce that.''

And no matter what precautions are taken, no mechanical system is completely injury proof as long as humans are operating them, SPI's Bishop said.

``Ultimately, if you want a totally safe machine, you could surround it with three rings of concertina wire, put a robot on and walk away,'' he said.

But until that time, the final factor in safety is squarely in the hands of human operators.

``Plantwide safety has got to become a culture in your plant,'' he said. ``Safety doesn't come from the machines, it comes from the humans operating them.''

``Every year we demand greater attention to safety,'' Ameron's Culhane said. ``We expect zero accidents. Managers, employees and supervisors all are being held accountable for safety performance.''

There are a number of driving factors behind the increasing concern for safety in the industry, Culhane said.

``It's a balance,'' he said. ``Originally it was driven by regulators and compliance programs. Those programs really opened businesses' eyes to the costs associated with health and safety. The regulations we're governed by have tightened up so much in the last several years, our tolerances for injuries have become much tighter.''

But government does not totally account for Ameron's concern about safety, Culhane said.

``We have a moral, technical and legal responsibility to keep injuries down,'' he said, ``and medical and workers' compensation costs have skyrocketed in the last five to 10 years.''

Even small firms without big safety budgets can take steps to reduce injuries. One plant manager, who did not want to be identified, said a combination of factors helps keep injuries down.

``We don't have a stringent safety program in place,'' he said of his plant in the Southeast. ``But we handle smaller quantities [of raw materials] at a time, and specify delivery of smaller quantities. If there's an accident, whatever happens, you can contain the damage to a local area.''

His company makes composite building products.

For USW's Wright, the answer to worker safety issues is a strong safety program jointly operated by workers and management.

``Even in an industry with many intrinsic hazards, those hazards can be controlled,'' Wright said. ``And in an industry without as many intrinsic hazards, there are going to be dangers if there isn't a good safety program.''

Tim Koury, corporate safety director for Blue Water Plastics Inc. in Marysville, Mich., and a member of the Industrial Safety Committee of Michigan's OSHA, said safety is the responsibility of all 1,200 workers at the injection molder's seven plants.

``We don't have a police program where the safety director walks in and everybody puts on their safety glasses and when he walks out they take them off,'' Koury said. ``It's up to [the workers] to get things corrected if it's in their power.''

The firm has set up safety committees at each plant and promotes a safety and wellness program that has been recognized by the state as one of the best programs in Michigan, Koury said.

But the rewards are not just found in the trophy case.

``Our overall success ... has reduced our workers' compensation costs enormously,'' he said. ``There has been a bottom-line benefit.''