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5/27/2010 | 3 MINUTE READ

Plastics Plants Can Be Safe Even for Blind Workers

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Few U.S. manufacturers, including plastics processing plants, have the vision to employ sight-impaired persons in their operations.

Few U.S. manufacturers, including plastics processing plants, have the vision to employ sight-impaired persons in their operations. Too much safety risk, one might think. However, two not-for-profit manufacturers have demonstrated that employees with visual and other impairments can work safely and productively in plastics processing.

Visually impaired working-age adults in the U.S. number about 2.5 million, and only 25-40% of them are employed. That figure is a symptom more of public perception than of actual capability or performance, says Jeff Easterling, v.p. at Signature Works Inc., Hazelhorst, Miss., the largest employer of legally blind workers in the nation.

Signature Works is the primary supplier of injection molded flatware to the U.S. government. Some 350 out of 550 employees at Signature Works have reduced vision or no sight at all, yet they operate primary processing machinery, conduct quality-control checks, or work in downstream assembly or trimming operations. In most cases, they can accomplish these tasks with little change to conventional equipment. Signature Works operates 20 horizontal injection molding machines ranging from 55 to 500 tons, 14 of them in the 400-500 ton range. It also makes utility rope or cord on a PVC extruder, and it produces large water cans for the military using an industrial blow molder. The company’s plastics division generates $9-14 million in annual sales. In the past 1.5 years, only one of eight OSHA-recordable accidents at Signature Works involved a visually impaired worker.

Visually impaired workers are also successful at Alphapointe Association for the Blind in Kansas City, Mo., which makes medical and pharmaceutical containers on four injection-blow molding machines and one extrusion-blow unit. The 89-year-old, $15-million/yr firm also assembles pens. Tasks assigned to the 10-25 visually impaired workers (out of 187) include affixing labels, packing products, moving stock, and assisting with shipping and receiving. “There are certain functions that demand visibility and others that do not,” says executive director Thomas Healy.


A range of abilities

According to the National Industries for the Blind in Alexandria, Va., legal blindness is commonly defined as vision no greater than 20/200 in the better eye, or a visual field restricted to no more than 20° wide. Legally blind people may have tunnel vision, lack central vision, or have no vision at all. They may see things as cloudy, extremely blurred, or just shadows.

The extent of vision impairment and a person’s overall capabilities are considered when determining what tasks are appropriate. For example, Signature Works assigns legally blind workers with tunnel vision to machine operations because they can view process screens, or to handling injection molded runners for regrinding. Others have positions in the lab conducting tests of part quality. Workers with greater vision loss may work in secondary operations like assembly or trimming, where they load parts onto an automated trimmer and check the finish by feel. Workers with multiple impairments, such as loss of hearing and sight, perform tasks such as hand packing finished products.

Healy and Easterling agree that the essentials for employing the visually impaired are the same as for other workers: proper training and firm work rules. “Visually impaired adults are 75% as efficient as a sighted person, yet they are more likely to remember and implement training and procedures, and less prone to make mistakes,” Easterling says.

For the safety of impaired workers, a clean environment is especially important. Items must not obstruct the walking paths or workstations of these employees. Of course, machines have OSHA-mandated guarding. However, presses may also be equipped with a “light curtain” of infrared laser sensors that halt operation if the beam is broken by any part of a worker’s body. Special equipment like scales with an auditory readout allow impaired workers to participate in q-c. Reading devices help Alphapointe assign shipping duties to some visually impaired workers.