Plastics is one of the most massive manufacturing industries in the US. According to Bonnie Limbach, chief communications officer with The Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI), “The industry accounts for more than $330 billion dollars in annual shipments with another $89.5 billion generated by upstream, supplying industries, bringing the total annual shipments to nearly $421 billion. Nationally, the plastics industry employed more than 1.5 million workers in 2000. Another 843,300 persons were employed by upstream suppliers of the plastics industry, bringing the employment impact to nearly 2.4 million – about 2 percent of the U.S. workforce.” It does not seem that economic downturn or global recession will severely diminish consumer and OEM demand for plastics in all shapes, sizes and formats.
Typically plastics manufacturers specialize in one particular type of product. The major types of plastics manufacturing include everything from bottles and food containers to aircraft and ships. We could go on talking about the growth of the plastics industry but at this point let’s focus on the safety factors associated with plastics manufacturing and what is being done to keep our million plus workers safe.
In an industry as mammoth as the plastics industry it would be unrealistic to assume that we could escape injury entirely but despite the current numbers I think with increased awareness, employee education and workplace safeguards we can do better at addressing and diminishing the current occurrences of workplace injury.
According to the Plastics Manufacturing Safety Guide by Am Trust North America, each year, one of 10 employees in the plastics manufacturing industry experiences an OSHA-recordable injury. The major injuries for plastics manufacturing by frequency and severity are:
- Strains and sprains
- Cuts and lacerations
- Contact with objects and equipment
In 2004, plastics products manufacturing reported 200 limb amputations, up from 110 amputations in 2003. About three-fifths of all work-related amputations involve a worker’s finger or arm getting caught or crushed by machinery, such as a press or conveyer. These injuries also happen during material-handling activities and cleaning and maintenance activities involving stationary machines.
So how do we go about reducing the number of injuries and make our facilities a safer place to work? Internationally there are initiatives underway to increase employee well being and promote workplace safety. First is the SIMPL initiative in the U.K. that was launched in October 14, 2010 with the stated objective of reducing workplace injuries by helping companies comply with existing laws in practical ways that are right for their business whilst improving health and safety standards for the workforce.
Likewise in the USA a partnership between the Society of the Plastics Industry and OSHA provides specific resources related to the health and safety of workers in the industry.
The following are some of the most common problem spots in plastics manufacturing and some suggestions to help us make our workplace safer and more hospitable for employees.
1. Machines – Most modern plastics manufacturing is highly auto-mated however when older equipment is involved and workers are required to operate or maintenance the equipment proper safeguards such as interlocking barriers, two handed controls and emergency controls are essential. Machine guarding is also very important with any moving parts, high voltage or heat. A simple insulation jacket can greatly reduce risk of burns and shock from a machine.
2. Noise Levels – Hearing protection devices should be the last line of your planned defense against hearing loss and other noise related injuries in the workplace. Analyze your equipment’s motors, gears, belts, pulleys and points of operation where blades cross or metal touches metal to reduce noise levels.
3. Confined Spaces– The proper cleaning of machinery often involves employees entering confined spaces. This increases the risk of exposure to serious physical injury from entrapment and hazardous atmospheric conditions. OSHA regulations must be followed for work in confined space and further address the use of proper respiratory equipment, confined space attendants, communications equipment and rescue personnel.
4. Chemicals, Dust and Fumes – Dust and chemicals are a very real part of plastics manufacturing. Resins, various chemical additives and modifiers present a significant chemical exposure hazard for production workers. It is absolutely necessary that engineering controls be put in place to reduce dust and chemical exposures that should include provisions of exhaust ventilation and dust collection systems for machinery and job activities that produce harmful dusts, fumes or vapors.
5. Work Area Ergonomics – The most common cause of muscular strains and injuries reported from plastics manufacturing are upper limb and neck injuries resulting from the operation of finishing processes. These injuries are due to forceful exertions and awkward positions. They can be reduced with proper ergonomic design of work areas. The work height or platform should be adjusted to a level that is comfortable to the worker for the type of job being performed. Working with raised elbows and/or arms adds strain on the employee’s arm or shoulder muscles. Awkward bending, twisting or reaching motions should be avoided.
6. Training and Safeguards – before maintenance is performed on a machine employees must be properly trained and equipped with appropriate safeguards in place to prevent injury. Nothing takes the place of proper employee orientation and training. For workplace injury to diminish there needs to be heightened awareness on the part of both the employer and employee. Initial and refresher training should be provided to employees who are involved in operating, maintaining and supervising plastic processing facilities. Annually certified, documented training should ensure that all employees are knowledgeable about, safe-work procedures, safe storage and handling of hazardous materials, equipment operation, and what measures should be taken in event of an emergency.
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These are just a few ways to increase safety in plastics for really any manufacturing facilities. What are you doing to protect employees and create a safer work environment?