Brian Schell still remembers the horrid 5 a.m. phone call four years ago, telling him that an employee at his plant had died in an accident.
Schell, president of thermoformer Buckell Plastic Co. in Lewistown, Pa., rushed over to the factory and found the staff trying to cope with the aftermath of the electrocution of fellow employee Sherry Moser. The small company had only 40 employees - the kind of place, he said, where ``you know every one of them personally.''
It was gut wrenching for the company, and for Schell.
``I would never want to go through that again, because if I did, being in business wouldn't be worth it,'' he said.
Schell has tried to salvage something from the incident - he labeled it a ``wake-up call'' - and has since devoted considerable time on safety, both at his plant and in volunteering in a safety partnership between the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and an industry trade group.
He's also taken to talking publicly about what happened at his company, to give what he sees as a wake-up call to others. Too often, Schell believes, the industry doesn't give enough attention to safety.
In February, Buckell was recognized by OSHA for going more than two years without a lost-time work accident, becoming one of only 13 firms in Pennsylvania recognized under OSHA's Safety and Health Achievement Recognition Program.
Schell has spent $50,000 on direct safety programs at his small company since 2000, putting more money into new, safer equipment and turning down some work because he wasn't sure it could be done safely.
But he considers himself an exception.
``Our industry hasn't done a good job, on the whole,'' he said. ``I think historically people in our industry aren't that concerned about it because bad things haven't happened to them.''
From my time writing about safety issues for Plastics News, I can think of stories I've covered that bear that out.
I'm thinking of one blow molder I wrote about that had two separate amputations within three months in 2001, from workers using saws that OSHA said weren't properly guarded. When OSHA inspected the plant two weeks after the second incident, they said they found that the firm still had not made any changes. Makes you wonder if safety was a priority.
Of course, if you look at the big picture, the plastics industry has gotten much safer.
Since 1989, when we started publishing, the injury rate per 100 workers in plastics processing has dropped from 7.2 to 4.3 in 2001.
That mirrors a trend in manufacturing in general - injuries are down. Industry experts point to a lot of things behind that improvement: safer equipment, improved machine safety standards, and hard work from trade groups and government to emphasize the safety message.
But some feel industrial safety still has a long way to go. I once heard an industrial safety expert from DuPont Co. - somebody with a long history of working in the resin industry - say that the safety debate now reminds him of the quality debate 20 years ago.
Then, many said, ``We'll never achieve zero defects. It costs too much.'' Now, everyone talks about Six Sigma and quality control in manufacturing because it makes good business sense.
That DuPont executive said safety has the same bottom-line benefit. He estimated that workplace injuries cost companies an extra $3,200 per worker each year, from things such as medical costs and lost production for the injured workers, not to mention higher workers' compensation rates.
Clearly, companies that really focus on safety can make big strides.
Injection molder Precise Technology Inc.'s plant in West Lafayette, Ind., had zero OSHA-recordable injuries in 2003. That plant picked up an award from OSHA for its effort. A big reason, according to Precise safety manager Bob Botti, is that the plant spent months on a program raising awareness of managers and employees.
Film extruder Plastic Suppliers Inc. saw recordable injuries drop from 17 in 1997 to two last year (while employment increased slightly) at one of its Columbus, Ohio, plants, after it hired a full-time safety manager and spent a lot of time raising awareness. It, too, picked up OSHA recognition.
Safety Manager Tom Moore said the improved safety is the equivalent of adding $1 million a year in sales, because that's how much more the company would have needed last year if injury rates had not dropped.
The key, he said, is getting buy-in from the upper management, who have ``to want it enough to be involved.''
Schell, for his part, said you need a corporate culture where employees feel comfortable talking about situations that almost caused an accident. They have to feel that they can discuss those near misses with management, without fear that management will question whether they're doing a good job, he said.
Schell has gotten very involved in a partnership that his trade group, the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., has with OSHA. The joint effort has produced training materials and run workshops, and brings its message to trade shows. Its Web site is: www.plasticsindustry.org/public/worksafe/alliance.htm.
SPI pointedly says one of the reasons it entered into the alliance is because it believes small firms, of which there are many in the plastics processing industry, may not have the resources to hire a full-time safety professional.
SPI said the alliance is a positive development because it makes its relationship with OSHA less adversarial. A voluntary partnership like that is clearly a change in how OSHA and industry deal with each other, and it can't help but be a good thing.
But is it enough?
I'm not a safety expert, but when I write about these issues, I'm struck by, even as overall industry safety has improved in the last decade and a half, how much more can be done by companies that really commit to making improvements.
That gave me an idea.
Rather than relying mainly on volunteer efforts, I think safety could be advanced by borrowing a page from how the Environmental Protection Agency sets new factory emissions standards.
When the agency develops a new clean air rule, it uses a process called maximum achievable control technology. It determines what the emissions levels are of the cleanest 10 percent of the industry, and then uses that as the new standard. It then gives the rest of the industry time to get to that level.
Why not do something similar with safety?
You could set it at the best 10 percent, or 20 percent. It's clearly an attainable standard. It's based on industry best practice, not government fiat. And it would set a strong new standard that could advance workplace safety.
Imagine if an industry said it was willing to tackle that goal. Then, operations such as Buckell, Plastic Suppliers and Precise's plant in Indiana would be the norm, not the exception.
And there might be fewer companies, in Schell's words, in need of wake-up calls.
Steve Toloken is Plastics News' Washington-based reporter