Industrial accidents are something responsible companies want to be known for preventing, not contributing to. Unfortunately, the safety record of a few firms within the plastics industry verges on the criminal. Those companies not only help injure and kill workers, they sully the reputation of the entire industry. During the past five years, nearly 100 plastics processing workers were killed in on-the-job accidents, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. In fact, a search of public records by Plastics News shows that workers in this country are more likely to be injured in the plastics industry than workers in manufacturing overall. Data from the latest year for which federal information is available, 1995, indicate an injury rate of 12.7 per 100 full-time-equivalent employees vs. 11.6 for manufacturing as a whole and 8.1 for the combination of all industries.
The finding concerns OSHA, and the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., which recognizes firms for effective safety programs.
What's striking about the issue is that significant formal efforts to reduce the injury and death rate in the industry exist to address the problem. Insurers, regulators, corporate training supervisors and labor unions all work to eliminate hazards and properly educate workers about safety procedures.
Those efforts return economic and legal dividends, which is why most organizations pursue them. That is not always the case, however, as the statistics illustrate. Workers, for various reasons, violate company safety guidelines and some employers willfully ignore government regulations designed to protect employees.
OSHA was so troubled by the accident numbers in the plastics industry that it began a targeted pilot safety program in the St. Louis region last year to help reduce the number of fatalities. It is working, according to the office's director, who says no deaths have been reported since the program was started. Significantly, the OSHA project involves training sessions and the implementation of industry safety standards — not OSHA inspections.
That should encourage individual companies in the plastics industry to re-examine their accident-prevention programs. The message that employee safety comes first too often is diluted by a hard-boiled culture more tuned to a production mentality and schedules that produce worker fatigue.
Those kinds of cultures breed cynicism and are a poor environment for the genuine promotion of employee safety. Linking the latter to product and service contracts presumably would improve the situation.