How do some plastics-processing plants win awards for consistent excellence in safety? It's not magic but careful application of policies and practices that keep their lost-time work injuries to a fraction of the industry average. One essential is not to put productivity ahead of safety.

Could you imagine your plant running for 12 years without a lost-time injury? How about 6 million work hours without any absences from job-related accidents or ailments? We interviewed seven plastics processors that have chalked up just such outstanding safety records.

We found out one thing for sure: They didn't achieve their sterling safety records by accident. It took deliberate efforts to foster a positive "culture of safety." The visible commitment of management and the full attention and participation of shop-floor workers create that culture. You may think these sound like abstract principles from a management textbook, but they really come down to concrete actions like these:


  • Frequent safety meetings that include feedback from management and labor.
  • Consistent monitoring of machines and employee activities.
  • Prominently posted safety reminders.
  • Continual reiteration of safety goals.
  • Capital investment in safety equipment and automation that reduces worker exposure to hazardous machinery.
  • Safety-related worker-incentive programs.


Add some creativity to the mix, and you have the recipe for success. For example, one of the processors we interviewed invites a physical therapist to the plant to counsel employees on avoiding injuries on the job. Another ensures that even personnel from visiting contractors receive training in the plant's safety procedures. Still another firm insists that employees pull over to the curb in order to use a cellular phone in a car.

But take heed: The constant push for faster production undermines all these efforts and is responsible for a large proportion of industrial accidents. Representatives of the safety-award winners say they work hard to instill a belief throughout the company that safety comes first.

The companies interviewed argue that they don't have to put safety ahead of the bottom line because safety enhances the bottom line. A successful safety program trims worker-compensation costs dramatically. It also reduces costs for hiring and training replacement workers and helps keep product quality and productivity high.

Most of the injuries at plastics plants are relatively minor.

Efforts pay off

Whatever methods the "best" plants are using to increase safety consciousness, there is little doubt that they are working:

Six million work-hours have been logged without a reported illness or injury resulting in lost time at the Fite Road plant of ICI Acrylics Inc., which produces acrylic monomers and casts Lucite sheet.

Twelve years have passed without a lost-time injury at Tenneco Packaging's stretch-film plant in Macedon, N.Y., or at its foam extrusion and thermoforming facility in Canandaigua, N.Y.

Less than five incidences resulting in lost workdays have ever been recorded in 13 years at the PP and HDPE film semi-works of Mobil Chemical in Macedon, N.Y.

Not one lost workday was reported in 1997 at the Denver PET bottle blowing plant of Schmalbach-Lubeca, Plastic Containers USA.

A single lost-time report was filed in a four-year span by custom injection molder Venture I, a division of Gibson County Plastics Inc. in Yorkville, Tenn.

Only four lost-time injuries, each resulting in one lost day, were filed last year by Hoffer Plastics Corp., South Elgin, Ill., one of the country's largest custom injection molders.

These plants are among the 333 that received a 1998 safety award from SPI in Washington, D.C., or were certified under the Voluntary Protection Program Participants Association (VPPPA), a stringent safety-auditing program administered by OSHA. The federal agency also has an award program called SHARP (Safety and Health Achievement Recognition Program) for firms with fewer than 100 employees. In addition, the National Safety Council in Washington, D.C., also identifies firms that record the largest number of work hours without a lost-time injury. Of the 30 U.S. plants on the list, nine are plastics related. Among the nine, which have logged from 1 million to 18 million work hours without an injury since mid-1997, are DuPont Co. film and profile plants in Florence, S.C., and Newark, Del.; a pipe plant of CertainTeed Corp., Vinyl Building Products Group in McPherson, Kan.; Johnson Controls, Inc., Plastic Container Div. (bottle making) in New Castle, Del.; Amoco Foam Products Co. (PS foam), Malvern, Ark.; and custom compounder Southwest Chemical Services, Inc., Seabrook, Texas.

Some of these plants could not brag about safety a few years ago. "We didn't have a good safety system when we started," recalls Ben Cottrell, president at Venture I. "Worker compensation quadrupled in a five-year period. But with implementation of an aggressive safety program, the cases fell as fast as they had risen.

Before it became VPPPA-certified, Huntsman Packaging Corp.'s film and bag-making plant in Macedon, N.Y., recorded a number of utility-knife wounds. According to Bob Sherlock, safety and health coordinator, Huntsman cut down on such accidents by analyzing and restructuring some job functions and replacing the utility knife with a safer tool.

Huntsman is proof that sometimes the smallest modification to work procedures can have the biggest impact on safety. Sherlock recalls, "We had a young guy who used to use his leg as a tool bench." Needless to say, the company persuaded him to change his risky behavior.

Safety starts at the top

In some plants, management is not aware of injuries and employees don't want to raise the issue, says Norman Deitch, Region II manager of OSHA's VPP program. "The norm is a company where management wants to protect employees but doesn't know how and doesn't know where to go," he says.

Making a whole plant more safety conscious is no simple matter. It involves a change in psychology. Management has to take the lead, Deitch says. If managers are not really interested in safety, they can't fake it. Implementing a formal safety-training program sends a clear message to every worker. But a good program has to involve everyone, reminds Deitch. It should make supervisors and workers accountable for safety in the workplace, so blame cannot be passed around.

Set the stage for safety by insisting on attention to cleanliness and order around the plant. "We find that you cannot distinguish housekeeping from safety and from quality. They all work hand-in-hand," says Cottrell.

Management should show a swift response to every incident or safety infraction, say safety-conscious processors. "We have compressed-air lines at every machine at our plant," recounts George Marshall, technical trainer/coordinator at Hoffer Plastics. "Last month, we had an incident where apparently someone used a line and didn't put it back properly. A worker tripped on the hose and broke her arm. Already we are evaluating three new types of compressed-air hoses in order to prevent this accident from occurring again." The firm will retrofit all of its more than 120 injection machines with safer hoses. "We are always looking to identify an area where an accident could potentially occur," says Marshall. For example, the company switched to robots to minimize chances for employees to reach into a press.

In another case, Hoffer worked with a client to redesign a bulky box to halt the incidence of back injuries in the assembly area. Hoffer also combated back strain by raising a weigh scale 1.5 ft to the level of a conveyor so workers wouldn't have to bend over repeatedly.

Some of the safest plants have come up with their own technical innovation to improve a potential danger zone. The bag-making operation at Huntsman Packaging looked like a high risk for repetitive-stress injuries as workers moved batches of bags from a stacker to a wicketer. So last year, Huntsman developed an automated wicketer that stacks the bags without human effort. The device is being considered for an VPPPA innovative product of the year award.

Huntsman won that award two years ago for a cantilevered-roll unwind stand it developed to eliminate potential back strains and sprains when moving large rolls of film. The devices were devised and implemented by hourly workers at the plant.

Safety in Action

Here's a close-up look at how some of the safest plastics plants in the nation keep everyone focused on preventing injuries. Injection molder Venture I has 16 presses from 28 to 700 tons and employs 15 to 40 people. The firm is the first in Tennessee to get OSHA's SHARP award. Venture I provides a monetary incentive to encourage employees to promote safety. Employees receive $5 after the first month without a recordable incident. The figure grows until the 24th month, when a $2000 lottery is held.

Venture I also follows the Toyota "Five S" program to instill safety: Seri (Keep only what is necessary. Get rid of junk); Seiton (Organize. Everything has a place); Seiso (Clean everything and keep it that way); Seiketsu (Implement previous three); Shitsuke (Make sure everyone follows). Also, a new weekly two-hour safety education program involves all employees in discussions of safety and communication issues and includes positive motivation toward safety goals.

VPPPA-certified Huntsman Packaging has 425 employees working in three departments.

Training and communication are Huntsman's main weapons to combat these safety lapses. All supervisors and managers go through a two-day "Dupont style" training session plus a separate half-day session along with all employees to become familiar with safety requirements. Even outside contractors must pass a safety training course before they get business from Huntsman. Safety is the first topic at weekly planning and production meetings. Each month each shift has a planning and safety meeting. Plant-wide safety meetings are also held each quarter.

The plant has a "Safe Back" program that teaches correct body mechanics for lifting, moving, and handling materials. This is supplemented by visits from a physical therapist to make a biomechanical evaluation of work procedures. Huntsman also has a hazard-identification "Near-Miss" program that requires workers to fill out a card if they spot an unsafe condition or act. The card is referred to a supervisor for action. There's also a column on safety in the company newsletter, and a safety "wall of fame" keeps employees informed and motivated.

Tenneco Packaging has attained VPPPA recognition at both its Flexible Products film plant in Macedon and its Canandaigua plant, which produces PS-foam and OPS products such as thermoformed plates, bowls, meat trays, and clamshell containers. Tenneco uses a safety checklist for every new piece of equipment that comes into the plants. Another checklist grades each area of plant safety according to three levels of urgency (A, B, or C). The area engineer, area supervisor, and other personnel assigned to evaluate the safety status of a workstation use the list. In one case, such a safety review resulted in outfitting a new conveyor with three additional emergency stops in the operator area. Also, machine guards were painted for easier visibility, and an area of exposed belt near the drive was suitably covered.

Tenneco created a comprehensive safety review process that involves the whole plant. Workers and managers make up different safety teams for programs/activities, training, ergonomics, audits, communications, and rules/regulations. To help motivate workers, a bulletin board in each work cell displays that cell's history of accidents, near misses, and lost work time for each shift. A placard shows the dollar value of products manufactured without an accident to date.

Mobil Chemical's Macedon research and develop plant, which develops PP and HDPE films and manages a large inventory of chemicals, has been a VPPPA site for 13 years and earned an SPI award this year. Gloria Rundt, area health and safety manager, has an annual budget of $200,000- $300,000 to spend on promoting safety. She conducts training seminars and safety inspections of the plant every quarter. In the film lab area, no neckties or scarves are allowed near the lines. If a hazard is spotted (such as a spill) warning signs are posted immediately until the hazard is eliminated.

ICI Acrylics, a producer of acrylic sheet says its Fite Road plant in Memphis recorded almost 13 years without a lost-time injury. Meanwhile, ICI's Olive Branch, Miss., plant (which produces poly-methyl methacrylate pellets and extruded acrylic sheet) has been free of OSHA-recordable lost-time incidents for eight years.

The firm asks workers to heed its "Take 2" message, which advises taking two minutes to analyze a job and plan how to execute it safely, before working on its nine extrusion lines and two polymer lines. "We say no job is so urgent that we can't take the time to do it safely," says Phil Nolan, safety, health, and environmental manager. Process operators are retrained every two years.

A safety-audit committee gives employees a voice in formulating safety rules. The committee also reviews new equipment installations. Workers also compete for prizes in safety-slogan contests.

Concern for safety goes all the way to top management. Managers are out on the shop floor, where they observe working conditions and are accessible to hear employee concerns on a daily basis. A review of safety performance is always the first topic at all monthly plant business meetings.

Schmalbach-Lubeca's PET bottle molding plant in Denver received a safety award from SPI last year. The plant's 50 employees accumulate stamps by remaining free of OSHA-recordable injuries and illnesses. The stamps are redeemable for purchase of items from a catalog. Meanwhile, a company-wide program awards gold, silver, or bronze prizes to plants with good safety records. "If we receive a gold award (meaning no OSHA recordables) we get coats or watches, says Lisa Smith, a plant operator.

The plant's safety committee evaluates the five blow molding machines, 12 preform injection presses, a bottle stacker, and general worker procedures each month, says Charles Burrell, plant engineer. "We make a point of being extremely careful. Everything we do here has a hint of safety consciousness," he says. "Once I cut my finger on a labeling machine that didn't have a guard. Pain makes a person think, and thinking makes a person wise, so we wised up right away."

Hoffer Plastics, winner of the SPI safety award, has 121 injection machines from 35 to 500 tons. They employ 604 hourly workers and 82 salaried personnel. The firm also communicates plant-wide safety goals to every employee through a weekly newspaper. A safety meeting is held every Friday to review accident reports and is attended by president Robert A. Hoffer, technical trainer George Marshall, and personnel manager Jim MacNames. Each week MacNames evaluates every press for cleanliness, while Marshall conducts a separate "surprise" safety inspection on each machine during the week. A "10" is a perfect score. The employee assigned to clean the machine must maintain an overall score of "9" each week.

Placards in every cell show the number of days worked without a lost-time injury, as well as the longest safety stretch ever achieved by that cell. An in-plant safety dinner is held for safety-conscious molding-cell teams after 1250 safe days. The firm also holds a Group Safety Exchange 10 times a year. A rotating group of 15-20 employees attends each meeting, where department heads report on the status of their molding cells and receive feedback on safety issues. A recurring problem or safety suggestion brought up at these meetings goes right to the maintenance department for a remedy, without need for prior management review.

"We get about 20 suggestions each meeting and take appropriate action on them," says Marshall. For example, Hoffer's busy central assembly area had dangerously heavy forklift traffic. An employee's suggestion resulted in construction of walls and automatic doors between the molding and assembly cells. In another case, a cumbersome mold-lifting system was retrofitted to be easier and safer to handle. In Plant 4, a special ladder was designed and affixed to each molding press to facilitate servicing the hopper loaders.

Injection molder Venture I has 16 presses from 28 to 700 tons and employs 15 to 40 people. The firm is the first in Tennessee to get OSHA's SHARP award. Venture I provides a monetary incentive to encourage safe practices by workers. Employees receive $5 after the first month without a recordable incident. The monetary figure grows until the 24th month, when a $2000 lottery is held.

Venture I also follows the Toyota "Five S" program to instill safety: Seri (Keep only what is necessary. Get rid of junk); Seiton (Organize. Everything has a place); Seiso (Clean everything and keep it that way); Seiketsu (Implement previous three); Shitsuke (Make sure everyone follows). Also, a new weekly two-hour safety education program involves all employees in discussions of safety and communication issues and includes positive motivation toward safety goals.

VPPPA-certified Huntsman Packaging has 425 employees working in three departments.

Training and communication are Huntsman's main weapons to combat these safety lapses. All supervisors and managers go through a two-day "Dupont-style" training session plus a separate half-day session along with all employees to become familiar with safety requirements. Even outside contractors must pass a safety training course before they get business from Huntsman. Safety is the first topic at weekly planning and production meetings. Each month each shift has a planning and safety meeting. Plant-wide safety meetings are also held each quarter.

The plant has a "Safe Back" program that teaches correct body mechanics for lifting, moving, and handling materials. This is supplemented by visits from a physical therapist to make a biomechanical evaluation of work procedures. Huntsman also has a hazard-identification "Near-Miss" program that requires workers to fill out a card if they spot an unsafe condition or act. The card is referred to a supervisor for action. There's also a column on safety in the company newsletter, and a safety "wall of fame" keeps employees informed and motivated.

Tenneco Packaging has attained VPPPA recognition at both its Flexible Products film plant in Macedon and its Canandaigua plant, which produces PS-foam and OPS products such as thermoformed plates, bowls, meat trays, and clamshell containers. Tenneco uses a safety checklist for every new piece of equipment that comes into the plants. Another checklist grades each area of plant safety according to three levels of urgency (A, B, or C). The area engineer, area supervisor, and other personnel assigned to evaluate the safety status of a workstation use the list. In one case, such a safety review resulted in outfitting a new conveyor with three additional emergency stops in the operator area. Also, machine guards were painted for easier visibility, and an area of exposed belt near the drive was suitably covered.

Tenneco created a comprehensive safety review process that involves the whole plant. Workers and managers make up different safety teams for programs/activities, training, ergonomics, audits, communications, and rules/regulations. To help motivate workers, a bulletin board in each work cell displays that cell's history of accidents, near misses, and lost work time for each shift. A placard shows the dollar value of products manufactured without an accident to date.

Mobil Chemical's Macedon research and develop plant, which develops PP and HDPE films and manages a large inventory of chemicals, has been a VPPPA site for 13 years and earned an SPI award this year. Gloria Rundt, area health and safety manager, has an annual budget of $200,000- $300,000 to spend on promoting safety. She conducts training seminars and safety inspections of the plant every quarter. In the film lab area, no neckties or scarves are allowed near the lines. If a hazard is spotted (such as a spill) warning signs are posted immediately until the hazard is eliminated.

ICI Acrylics, a producer of acrylic sheet says its Fite Road plant in Memphis recorded almost 13 years without a lost-time injury. Meanwhile, ICI's Olive Branch, Miss., plant (which produces poly-methyl methacrylate pellets and extruded acrylic sheet) has been free of OSHA-recordable lost-time incidents for eight years.

The firm asks workers to heed its "Take 2" message, which advises taking two minutes to analyze a job and plan how to execute it safely, before working on its nine extrusion lines and two polymer lines. "We say no job is so urgent that we can't take the time to do it safely," says Phil Nolan, safety, health, and environmental manager. Process operators are retrained every two years.

A safety-audit committee gives employees a voice in formulating safety rules. The committee also reviews new equipment installations. Workers also compete for prizes in safety-slogan contests.

Concern for safety goes all the way to top management. Managers are out on the shop floor, where they observe working conditions and are accessible to hear employee concerns on a daily basis. A review of safety performance is always the first topic at all monthly plant business meetings.

Schmalbach-Lubeca's PET bottle molding plant in Denver received a safety award from SPI in 1997. The plant's 50 employees accumulate stamps by remaining free of OSHA-recordable injuries and illnesses. The stamps are redeemable for purchase of items from a catalog. Meanwhile, a company-wide program awards gold, silver, or bronze prizes to plants with good safety records. "If we receive a gold award

The plant's safety committee evaluates the five blow molding machines, 12 preform injection presses, a bottle stacker, and general worker procedures each month, says Charles Burrell, plant engineer. "We make a point of being extremely careful. Everything we do here has a hint of safety consciousness," he says. "Once I cut my finger on a labeling machine that didn't have a guard. Pain makes a person think, and thinking makes a person wise, so we wised up right away."