WASHINGTON -The plastics processing industry seems to be holding steady on safety, neither getting better nor worse, according to fresh data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
There has been a sharp increase in two areas, however: injuries among plastic pipe makers, and reports of ergonomic injuries throughout all industry segments.
Experts caution that drawing conclusions from changes reported over short periods of time can be challenging. It's not clear, for example, if the increase in ergonomic reports reflects more injuries, or just more injuries being reported.
What is clear is that statistics for 2000, released at the end of 2001, do not show any overall gains.
``I don't think you see improvement,'' said Susan Howe, senior technical director of worker and product safety at the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. in Washington. ``It's not getting better. It's not getting worse.''
Here are the numbers: the industry (measured by Standard Industrial Classification Code 308) reported 5.4 cases of lost workdays due to injury or illness per 100 workers in 2000, compared with 5.5 in 1999. Looking more broadly at all injuries and illnesses, the industry reported 10.5 cases per 100 workers in 2000, up a little from 10.3 in 1999.
Plastics processing remained more dangerous than general manufacturing, which had 4.5 lost workday cases per 100 workers in 2000. The Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes the numbers.
One safety expert said he is not surprised that the plastics industry's rates did not improve in 2000.
``The plastics industry is not particularly unique in this area,'' said Michael Crickenberger, vice president of marketing with DuPont Safety Resources, the resin maker's safety consulting wing. ``The whole area of safety and safety performance is just not a priority issue in most U.S. industries.''
But Howe added that, when looked at over a longer period of time, the plastics industry has seen improvement. Since 1990, the industry has cut its overall injury and illness rate from 16.5 cases per 100 workers to 10.5 in 2000. That mirrors a trend among manufacturing in general.
``We've seen a very marked improvement over time,'' Howe said. Companies have worked hard, and machinery makers have improved equipment, particularly since new safety standards for horizontal presses were adopted in 1997, she said.
Howe said examining similar industries, such as rubber processing, shows that plastics fares better. Rubber processing had 7.7 lost workday cases per 100 workers in 2000.
But Crickenberger said industry remains too accepting of injuries, considering it ``a risk to be managed, not something to be eliminated.''
The question to ask, he said, is, ``Why are you hurting five people out of a 100? ... That's a huge number.''
One area where reported injuries skyrocketed is plastic pipe.
The sector went from a low of 5.2 lost workday cases in 1998, to 6.6 in 1999, to 9.6 in 2000. The previous high was 9.1 in 1990. Data before 1989 is not available on the BLS Web site.
``I have no idea why the year 2000 would see a dramatic increase in injuries,'' said Richard Church, executive director of the Plastic Pipe and Fittings Association in Glen Ellyn, Ill. ``I looked back to 1994. It's dipped and swooped a couple of times, but nothing as dramatic as 1999 to 2000.''
Both the Plastics Pipe Institute Inc. in Washington and the Uni-Bell PVC Pipe Association in Dallas declined comment.
Plastics overall ranked ninth on the BLS list of industries with the highest lost workday injury and illness rates.
BLS does not consider the change from 1999 to 2000 statistically significant, according to an agency official. The data is generated by a survey of companies, and the sample may not be identical from year to year.
One pipe extruder, PW Eagle Inc. in Eugene, Ore., said its plants saw safety improve from 1999 to 2000.
President Larry Fleming said the company's injury and illness rate was half the industry average. Accidents seem to happen most often with temporary workers, he said.
The plastics industry also saw ergonomic injuries jump from 3,900 in 1999 to 4,700 in 2000. That ranked it sixth on the BLS list, measured strictly by numbers. Other industries had much higher rates than plastics, and some reported increases and some decreases.
Howe said plastic numbers could have gone up because companies and employees are more likely now to report ergonomic injuries.
Among specific industry segments, plastic pipe had the highest injury and illness rate, followed by plastic plumbing fixtures at 6.9, plastic foam products and a catch-all category for processors at 5.5, plastic bottles at 4.7 and film and sheet and profiles at 4.3. Compounders had 4.2 and plate and sheet had 3.9.