The nation's chief safety regulator has issued a challenge to the plastics industry: Dramatically cut ergonomic injuries on your own or government eventually will step in with a draconian alternative.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration head John Henshaw delivered the challenge during a Sept. 19 ceremony to sign a voluntary ``safety alliance'' with the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. in Washington.
The alliance's other major focus will be reducing amputation injuries, an area where OSHA has targeted plastics.
The nation's safety czar, however, appeared more interested in ergonomics. He spent much more time in his speech talking about that politically charged issue, and he urged SPI to develop industry-specific guidelines for reducing such injuries.
Both Henshaw and SPI hailed the agreement, which they said is designed to build a more cooperative relationship between the industry and OSHA. It's just the second time OSHA has signed an alliance with a specific industry to work jointly on improving safety.
It's unclear what the agreement will mean in practice. Details, including specific goals, have yet to be determined. SPI and OSHA will form a committee to implement the deal. The industrywide impact also is unclear because SPI represents only about 400 out of more than 16,000 processors in the United States.
Henshaw said the plastics industry needs to reduce ergonomic injuries, but he declined to set a specific target.
``It needs to be dramatic,'' he said. ``It needs to be real clear that this kind of [voluntary agreement] works not marginally but in a significant way to reduce musculoskeletal disorders [ergonomic injuries].''
Plastics processing had the sixth-highest number of ergonomic injuries of any industry in 2000, reporting 4,700 injuries among 745,000 workers, up from 3,900 in 1999, according to government data. By that measure the plastics industry's rate was worse than rates at hospitals and grocery stores but better than metal forging, motor vehicles or meat products.
Voluntary ergonomics standards have been a centerpiece of the Bush administration's safety effort, and Henshaw said he wants similar agreements with other industries. Labor unions, however, have been skeptical of voluntary arrangements.
Henshaw enlisted the plastics industry in an effort to prove that cooperative arrangements between industry and OSHA can work, or, he argued, Democrats like Sen. John Breaux, D-La., and others will push solutions that industry will not like.
``We've got to be able to show it with objective data,'' Henshaw said. ``We've got to show it in a way that the next time there is a change in administration or the next time there is a different view, it does not easily change back to the old style of enforcement, enforcement, enforcement.''
To be credible, he urged the industry to develop a system of reporting more timely injury data. Government data does not come out rapidly enough to make the case, Henshaw told a meeting of SPI's board.
SPI President Don Duncan said it is not clear what SPI can do to collect more data, but he said the trade group welcomed the agreement because it's a chance to work ``under a voluntary arrangement [rather] than under an enforcement decree.''
``We'd rather have our committee working with them than OSHA doing it in a vacuum,'' Duncan said.
Under a similar dialogue with Michigan's state OSHA, SPI was able to negotiate a streamlined lockout/tagout standard in 2000. The agreement with federal OSHA will examine lockout and machine guarding issues, but Henshaw said he could not say if it would eventually include something similar to Michigan's plan.
Henshaw, who headed safety programs at chemical firm Astaris LLC before President Bush tapped him to head OSHA last year, said voluntary agreements give industry flexibility and can more quickly and economically improve safety than enforcement.
Henshaw recently reorganized OSHA to put more emphasis on working cooperatively with industry. Agency data, however, indicates that OSHA has been reducing inspections in the plastics industry for several years.
In 1997, OSHA inspected 1,475 facilities in SIC code 308, which includes plastics processing. The number of annual inspections has declined steadily since, to 1,024 in 2001, according to OSHA data. Henshaw said he was not sure why those numbers have dropped, but said it may be related to OSHA's attempts to target its inspections on factories with poor safety records.