On April 25, an employee at blow molder Falcon Plastics Inc. cut off three fingers trying to trim scrap plastic on an improperly guarded band saw.
About three months later, on Aug. 3, another worker at the Washington, Pa., company suffered an almost identical injury, doing the same task.
``Both received partial and full amputations to the middle, ring and pinky fingers on the left hand,'' according to Robert Szymanski, area director of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's Pittsburgh office.
Yet when federal OSHA inspectors visited Aug. 17, they found the company had not corrected the problem: ``They were still basically doing the same thing,'' Szymanski said. Falcon officials did not return calls.
OSHA officials say amputation injuries like those at Falcon are far too common in the plastics industry, so the agency has begun to target plastics as part of a broader crackdown on workplace amputations. The agency is focusing on industries that use presses, saws, and other cutting instruments.
Plastics processing ranked at the top of frequent violators of OSHA's general machine guarding standards, one of three OSHA is focusing on. Between October 1997 and September 1998, federal OSHA inspectors gave plastics processing companies 129 citations and $176,000 in fines - the most of any single industry group.
``What we would really like to do with this directive is raise awareness of certain industries and certain SIC codes on certain machines that we know are causing amputations with regularity,'' said Paul Cyr, technical specialist in OSHA's Office of General Industry in Washington. ``We are trying to get at that with both an outreach and compliance-assistance effort, as well as enforcement.''
OSHA said the central problem is that companies frequently do not follow the standards.
``Injuries involving these machines often result in death or permanent disability, and OSHA's inspection history indicates that employee exposures to these unguarded or inadequately guarded machines are prevalent in many workplaces,'' OSHA said.
How the program takes shape depends on how local OSHA offices implement it. Those offices randomly will select companies in targeted SIC codes, but local inspectors also will be able to use their experience to target specific firms, Cyr said.
OSHA's Washington headquarters developed the standard after reviewing data to determine which industries have the most standards violations that lead to amputations.
One plastics industry trade group questioned how OSHA developed its ranking of most-dangerous industries.
``That is one of our concerns, that this directive over-characterizes the risk to the workers in the plastics processing industry,'' said Susan Howe, senior technical director of worker and product safety with the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. ``We did look at amputations and the rate has been consistently low.''
SPI officials said they are not disputing the seriousness of the problem, but are asking members to forward nonpublic OSHA log information ``so we can put together a better portrait of risks,'' said Maureen Healey, chief regulatory and state affairs officer. Washington-based SPI also is asking OSHA for more information on how it developed its rankings, and has filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the agency.
Howe said that because OSHA's ranking looks at the number of violations, not the rates, it is weighted toward industries with large numbers of employees.
Looking just at the number of violations of general machine guarding standards, it is clear that plastics processing does not fare well. The industry's $176,000 in fines is much higher than the second-ranking sector, metal stamping, which received $114,000 in fines.
However, the plastics industry is not OSHA's only target.
The agency also is focusing on violations related to safeguarding power presses and to woodworking equipment. On the power press standard, metal-stamping companies received $410,000 in fines for 607 violations during the period studied, October 1997 to September 1998. In comparison, plastics processors received $19,500 in fines for 40 citations in that sector.
The plastics data comes from firms in Standard Industrial Classification code 3089, which is where OSHA initially will target its efforts in plastics. But Cyr said field inspectors have the authority to decide if a company is similar enough to SIC 3089 to be included in the directive.
The OSHA program also will focus on other industries that could include plastics processing, such as motor vehicle parts (SIC 3714).