WASHINGTON — Hundreds of plastic processors are among thousands of companies the federal government is targeting in a campaign to reduce workplace injuries. During the next 10 months, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration plans to give "wall-to-wall" inspections to about a third of the 13,000 workplaces — those with the highest reported injury rates — and send the rest letters noting problems.
The effort does not target plastics, but the list has 497 companies in the 308 Standard Industrial Classification code commonly used for plastics, and there could be other plastics processing companies listed under other SIC codes.
Overall, plastics processors continue to have a worse safety record than manufacturing in general, according to federal figures for 1998, the most recent year available. Plastics firms recorded 5.7 cases of lost workdays per 100 workers because of injuries on the job in 1998, compared with 4.7 for all manufacturers.
But plastics firms appear to be getting safer, mirroring a national trend. Plastics processors recorded 6.3 cases of lost workdays per 100 workers in 1995, while manufacturing as a whole reported 5.3. The average for all U.S. workplaces was 3.1 incidents per 100 workers.
Overall, the plastics processing industry does not seem to have improved its safety as much as manufacturing in general between 1993 and 1998, said Lewis Freeman, vice president of government affairs at the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. in Washington.
SPI is still analyzing the figures, but Freeman said worker shortages and turnover among processors could be making it more difficult to improve safety: "We feel we have an obligation to examine this problem and work with our members to improve safety."
OSHA said it was willing to work with employers to improve safety, a claim that some companies took skeptically.
"We recognize that an elevated lost-workday injury and illness rate does not necessarily indicate a lack of interest in safety and health on the part of your business," OSHA Administrator Charles Jeffress said in a letter to companies on the list.
Rotomolder Step2 Co. has two Ohio plants on the list, one in Streetsboro and one in Perrysville. The company is trying to reduce workplace injuries but finds it is tough going because the more than 1,000 workers at the two plants are changing constantly, said Wayne Stock, executive vice president.
"We have 60-70 percent new employees," Stock said. "You teach them safety, but our work has a lot of manual labor. ... It is much more susceptible to carpal tunnel."
The company, based in Streetsboro, has had local OSHA officials at its plant and has sought their help in improving safety, particulary in trimming.
"Nobody has been able to come back with anything better," Stock said. "The style and size of our parts are not conducive to automated trimming."
Another rotomolding firm, Rotonics Manufacturing Inc., based in Gardena, Calif., had two plants on the list, but one in Miami has since shut down. RMI President and Chief Executive Officer Sherman McKinniss said the company had one employee with a serious injury that inflated its numbers. That's a problem he said can frustrate all small manufacturers.
"We had a sit-to with them over this — I said `Bull crap, we got one guy out,'" McKinniss said. "That is why guys like me are tired of [OSHA's] B.S."
RMI's Gainesville, Texas, plant is on the list.
OSHA officials said the severity of an injury does not affect rankings — each injury is counted as one incident.
PVC Container Corp., whose Paris, Ill., blow molding plant was on the list, said that plant went through all of 1999 without a lost-time accident. A company official found it discouraging it made the list, which is based on 1998 data.
"It doesn't seem very fair to me, but who can argue with the federal government?" said Joel Roberts, senior vice president of operations for the Eatontown, N.J., firm.
Several plastics companies on the list said they have beefed up safety at the plants named.
Sentinel Polyolefins LLC of Hyannis, Mass., spent $250,000 on new equipment and on developing new procedures at a Saint Johnsville, N.Y., plant on the list since late 1998, said Chief Financial Officer Michael Rehwinkel.
The company has been able to reduce its injury rate threefold by bringing in safety experts after it created a joint venture with Tenneco Packaging, now called Pactiv Corp., in December 1998, he said. The company put guarding equipment on machines and made relatively simple investments in things such as gloves and knife blades that retract automatically, Rehwinkel said.
The key was that the much larger Tenneco was able to contribute its safety experts, he said.
"What it came down to — they [Sentinel] didn't have the resources to understand the source of the injuries," Rehwinkel said. "It is not for lack of desire. They needed the resources."
Injection molder Moll Industries Inc. in Knoxville, Tenn., had two plants on the list, in Fairport, N.Y., and San Antonio. The company has made significant improvements since then, including automating an inspection line in Texas that was causing a lot of carpal-tunnel repetitive-motion injuries, said Alan Berdal, Moll's safety and loss control manager.
The company also changed accident reporting forms to get more employee input on accident causes and switched workers' compensation carriers to boost safety training, Berdal said.
As with Step2, a tight labor market causes problems, Berdal said. The San Antonio plant has a lot of turnover because the local economy is strong, which poses challenges for safety, he said.
The OSHA list covers work sites in the 29 states that do not have state agencies handling workplace safety.
The 13,000 names on OSHA's list represent the highest injury rates among those 80,000 workplaces. Any workplace makes the list if it has an average of at least eight workers per 100 who either lost workdays or were placed on light duty. Any workplace with more than 14 such workers is very likely to get an inspection, OSHA said.