The plastics processing industry's overall safety record is improving, but one longtime area of concern — amputations — remains a persistent and dangerous problem.
On the positive side, the industry's overall safety record is getting better. Rates of injury and illness in government data for plastics processing are about half what they were 15 years ago, and the rate for 2019, the last year figures are available, hit a record low for the second straight year.
But even with those gains, amputations remain a stubborn problem, and some observers expect to see a continued government focus on it.
Plastics News analyzed 10 years of federal government safety data for plastics processing companies and found that amputations were by far the most common serious incidents.
From 2017 to 2019, for example, amputations of fingers and limbs made up 49 percent of 400 serious injury cases listed in Occupational Safety and Health Administration records for plastics processing. Other years in the last decade show a similar pattern, although there are some gaps in OSHA data.
Amputations in plastics have been a focus stretching back almost two decades. A 2002 voluntary cooperation agreement between OSHA and the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., now the Plastics Industry Association, for example, made reducing amputations a major part of its work.
And it remains a concern for regulators today.
A 2019 update to OSHA's National Emphasis Program on amputation risks put four sectors of plastics processing on a list of 75 targeted industries. The agency based that list on safety data from 2014 to 2018. Those segments are plastic pipe; plumbing fixtures; profiles; and a large, catchall category in government data for miscellaneous plastics processing.
Two lawyers who work with manufacturers said companies should expect more scrutiny of amputation hazards from OSHA as well as a more muscular agency in general under President Joe Biden's appointees.
"They will be a lot more enforcement-oriented," said William Wahoff, a lawyer in the Columbus, Ohio, office of Steptoe & Johnson PLLC. "I would be really, really emphasizing to employers to look for the amputation hazards on extrusion machines and in various plastics processing machinery."
Nelva Smith, another lawyer at Steptoe & Johnson, expects OSHA budgets to rise significantly and for agency staffing levels to rise.
She sees amputation incidents as more likely to trigger in-person inspections by OSHA, and Wahoff said he thinks amputation incidents could become triggers for more comprehensive investigations.
"I think things are trending back to where they were, where an amputation can trigger a wall-to-wall inspection," Wahoff said.