The processing industry's overall rate of injury and illness in the U.S. fell to 3.8 cases per 100 full-time equivalent workers in 2018, down from 4.0 in 2017.
It's a sizable drop from 2010, when the rate was 5.1. The rate can fluctuate from year to year, but the general trend in BLS data for the last 20 years has been downward.
From 2009 to 2012, for example, the rate was between 4.6 and 5.1. But from 2016-18, the workplace injury and illness rate dropped down to a range between 3.8 and 4.0.
The 2018 rate of 3.8, in fact, is a record low for the plastics processing sector. It's down considerably from the mid-1990s, when the industry rate was over 12.
Marie Gargas, senior technical director of regulatory affairs for the Plastics Industry Association in Washington, said there are many factors behind improving safety rates. She said the association could not comment on specific data but can point to general factors.
She highlighted strategies like more focus on identifying and addressing "near misses," and pointed to the National Safety Council effort launched last year, the Work to Zero 2050 initiative. A key focus for that project is to analyze near-miss incidents and try to prevent them.
"Our members have focused on this, with one site sharing that submissions of near misses increased 75 percent," Gargas said.
NSC said that for every major workplace injury, there are 29 minor injuries and 300 incidents that didn't result in injuries but could have.
"If organizations focus on preventing the noninjury incidents, then the minor and major injuries will decrease as well," NSC said in its February "Safety Technology 2020" report, issued as part of the initiative.
The report mentions a few areas of near misses to target — such as lockout/tag-out to control hazardous energy and machine guarding — that are frequently cited violations in plastics industry Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspections.
Injection molder Plastikos Inc. in Erie, Pa., said the company's safety committee takes that approach of analyzing situations where a serious problem may have been averted to determine "how do we prevent this near miss from becoming a bigger accident," said President Phil Katen.
He believes a focus on safety has helped Plastikos appear regularly on the Plastics Industry Association's list of safer plants within the industry.
Gargas said safety initiatives within plastics companies have focused on areas such as lockout/tag-out, material handling and hand safety.
She said there are some common themes in effective safety programs in the industry, including management support, good communication and securing the participation of all employees. That can include requiring behavior-based safety observations and inviting workers to write safety alerts that are sent to the entire factory.
As well, the structure of safety committees can have an impact, Gargas said: "There's a real emphasis on cross-functional teams."
The falling accident rate within plastics firms mirrors that of the private sector as a whole.
Manufacturing across the board has fallen from 4.3 to 3.4 between 2009-18, and the NSC report notes that injury rates have dropped 67 percent across all private sector firms in the last quarter-century, although NSC said workplace deaths have not declined nearly as much as injuries.
The NSC points to workers' compensation laws, government oversight through agencies like OSHA, safety training and attempts to promote safety culture in organizations for the reduction in workplace injuries.