The overall safety record for plastics processing is nothing to brag about. Though injury rates are falling little by little, accidents in plastics plants remain well above the average for all U.S. manufacturing. In this special report, we turn the spotlight on the hazardous conditions that result in so many injuries.

It's 1:15 a.m. The last of an order of molded frames has to be on a truck that leaves at 6:00 a.m. But the parts are sticking in the molds. The plastic is gassy. There's no time to shut down and see what the problem is.

Then the screw sticks and stops altogether. Two workers try to back the screw off, but it won't budge. They should lock out the machine and let it cool down, but they only have two boxes of parts left to run. If they can just get the screw to move! In a last-ditch effort to keep the line going, they climb up to the hopper and begin scooping pellets out with their hands, hoping to reduce pressure at the feed end enough to restart the screw. The heaters, meanwhile, are still hot. Pressure is building in the barrel. All of a sudden, hot plastic shoots up from the bottom of the hopper. Unable to escape the molten shower, both workers are left with third-degree burns.

Like most other industrial accidents, this one at a plant on the West Coast didn't have to happen. You could say the machine operators needed more sense. Perhaps what they needed was better training in what constitutes safe

What this incident has in common with many others we researched is a work environment that at best doesn't reinforce safety as a priority, and at worst, encourages workers to put productivity ahead of safety. The consequences can be completely inadvertent, but serious. When Componx Inc. in Pekin, Ind., decided to put two workers on a molding machine instead of one in order to raise output, no one thought it would be hazardous. They learned otherwise when one operator activated the cycle and the other operator's hand was struck and badly burned by the closing mold.

Unenviable safety record

There is more than anecdotal evidence that plastics processors have a safety problem. Nationwide data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) show that accident rates for SIC 3080 ("Miscellaneous Plastics Products") remained well above the average for all manufacturing in 1997, the most recent year for which figures were available at press time.

According to BLS data, the rate of occupational injuries resulting in lost workdays was 21% higher for plastics processing in 1997 than for all U.S. manufacturing. That is a lot better than in the past: The plastics injury rate was almost 36% higher than the manufacturing average in 1989 and 30% higher in 1996. But even in 1997, some segments of plastics processing

Many recorded accidents are relatively minor. About 38% represent sprains and strains, bruises, or back pain. However, BLS recorded 17 plastics workplace fatalities during 1997. When accident reports for SICs other than 3080 are taken into account, fatalities in plastics processing probably numbered more than 20. The reason is that plastics manufacturers are often listed under several SIC codes, and accidents can come up under any of them. Sometimes they are not listed under plastics at all. Instead, they carry the SIC code of the industry in which their products are used. For example, there was a fatality in 1994 at Nyco Plastics in Elkhart, Ind., where a worker was crushed in an injection press that allegedly hadn't been locked out properly. Nyco has the SIC code for window curtains, not plastic parts.

Though it's not much to brag about, plastics plants are by no means the worst offenders. One-quarter of the 461 manufacturing SICs listed by BLS in 1997 reported higher lost-workday injury rates than plastics processors.

What's more, the injury rate for plastics processing has been declining faster than the rate for all manufacturing since 1989. From 1996 to 1997, the plastics injury rate dropped 8.9%, versus 2.3% for all manufacturing. OSHA investigations of serious accidents also declined about 7%

Nevertheless, OSHA-investigated accidents are rising in some parts of the country, raising warnings. OSHA records show that in Ohio, for example, fatal accidents went from only two in the years 1991-95 to six in 1996-98. They included an operator crushed by a tow motor at Step 2 Corp. in Streetsboro and another operator crushed between injection molds at Master Industries in Ansonia.

Showing the way

While plastics plants as a group appear to be run less safely than the average factory, some processors have compiled award-winning safety records. If some of these plants can operate for 12 or 13 years without a lost-time injury, and others can rack up many millions of work-hours with no lost workdays, then most other plastics plants can probably be made safer than they are today.

The first of the next two articles points a warning finger at glaringly unsafe practices that are all too common in plastics operations. Then we take a look at a number of exemplary plants that combine management commitment, employee involvement, and a little creativity to achieve a safer environment.