At 3:30 one afternoon in February 1994, an employee at Henderson Manufacturing Co., Henderson, Colo., was leaning into a mold for 42-gal barrels to apply a mold release containing perchloroethylene. He was overcome by the deadly fumes and suffocated. His body was found nine hours later. "He wasn't wearing any respiratory protection and no engineering controls had been implemented," the OSHA record concludes. He was only 17 years old.
The processor, which has since closed according to OSHA, was fined $20,000.
Plastics processing plants have inherent dangers. Workers operate in a jungle of fast-moving machinery, two-ton molds, molten resins, potent chemicals, and razor-sharp slicers. Danger looms especially close at companies with old machines that lack the latest safety features. Machine operators who may not know the hazards or get careless about them may find themselves in peril. Finally, managers who ignore safety to drive product out the door faster may be spending any revenue gains on OSHA fines and Workers' Compensation claims.
Safety is everyone's responsibility, but it starts with management. Service technicians interviewed for this article say they may spot an unsafe condition and report it to management, but often little or nothing is done. On one service visit, a technician told an operator that the tiebars on his press needed greasing. The operator took a rag, and as the molds closed during the cycle, he stepped behind the moving platen and greased the bars. "I asked what he thought he was doing," the technician recalls. "He said the machine was on a 55-second cycle, and he counted the seconds in his head so he could get out of the way before the mold opened." The service rep went to management and demanded they fire the worker on the spot. "He shouldn't be working around machinery. But they only wrote him a warning letter."
The solution generally lies in better safety training. "It's hard to get people to understand how to keep themselves out of harm's way," notes a safety engineer for an extrusion machine maker. The push by the Society of the Plastics Industry for national worker certification is designed to improve both productivity and plant safety. "Processors don't realize that better safety invariably means better productivity," says Dennis Guritza, president of Environmental Strategies Inc., a safety and environmental consulting firm in Chagrin Falls, Ohio.
Too much safety?
When a worker is injured on the job, machine builders are often blamed along with the employer. Over the years, costly litigation over such accidents has caused plastics machine builders to add more safety guards, shields, lockouts, and other devices
Injection presses, for example, now require safety panels under the gates to within 19 in. of the floor to prevent operators from crawling under a moving clamp. But the panel sometimes makes it difficult for a conveyor belt to fit under the molds for automatic parts removal. So while it's not legal, many processors dismantle the barrier or cut an opening in it.
OSHA also requires strict lock-out/tag-out procedures at main electrical switches before a mold change. During a mold change, operators may throw the breaker on and off 14 times in half an hour, says a safety director of a Midwest injection molder. "A breaker isn't designed to take that kind of abuse. It also sends power surges to electronic circuitry on the machine," he adds. In addition, shutting off the power will turn off heater bands. So even after the mold is changed, there would still be downtime while the plastic gets back up to processing temperature. Engineers say these inconveniences and downtime tempt molders to ignore the safety requirement.
Some safety errors violate OSHA regulations. Some simply defy logic. All put people at risk. After talking with safety experts and studying the records of hundreds of accidents, Plastics Technology compiled a list of some of the costliest errors. These dangerous practices spell disaster.
1. Keep a sloppy shop. Poor housekeeping is one of the most dangerous mistakes a plant can make, safety auditors agree. "When clutter is allowed around moving machinery, things get caught. People have to reach or stretch at awkward angles and can lose their balance," notes Walter Bishop, executive director of the Machinery Div. of the Society of the Plastics Industry. "It's almost always the plants with poor housekeeping procedures that have the accidents." Clutter is a big no-no to OSHA inspectors. Indeed, when OSHA visits a plant after an accident, the violations that frequently top the list are failures to keep pathways clear, floors clean, and emergency exits freely accessible.
After muscle strains and sprains, slips and falls make up the second largest category of worker-compensation expense in plastics plants, according to a 1996 study by the Wausau Insurance Companies, Wausau, Ind.
2. Wear inappropriate clothing. Loose clothing around moving machinery can get caught and pull you in, safety consultants warn. OSHA doesn't regulate dress except in the case of protective clothing. However, common sense would caution office staff to tuck in their neckties when they go on the plant floor, though that's hard to enforce.
One solution to the necktie hazard is to require that ties be detachable, says Duke Pollick, safety director at PVC profile maker Veka Corp. in Fombell, Pa. Veka eliminated the necktie problem another way
3. Work on live wires. There's no shortage of ways to get electrocuted around plastics processing machinery, but doing electrical work without cutting the power is certainly the most avoidable. In 1993, three maintenance men at Spartech Plastics' La Mirada, Calif., plant were assigned to replace a breaker on a 480-volt, 800-amp circuit. The job was scheduled for a Saturday, when the plant wouldn't be running, but no one had called the power company to deactivate the line from the utility pole. The crew decided to do the work anyway. As they were removing screws, they caused a ground fault and an electric arc, which burned all three. All were hospitalized. The supervisor died five days later.
Service engineers also cringe when they see operators standing on barrel covers of extruders to fill the hopper, which happens in small shops. If the covers shift, they can cause a short with heater bands underneath.
4. Disable emergency stops. Technical-service people say this is one of the dumbest mistakes they see in the field
5. Wipe or adjust moving machinery. No operator wants to lose production time by shutting down a machine just to wipe off a drip of hot plastic, ink, or hydraulic oil. But that's what causes a lot of amputations. A 31-year-old operator at Wesprint, a film converter in Stockton, Calif., crushed three fingers of his right hand in March 1995 while attempting to adjust a 6-in.-diam. plate cylinder on a printing press. The press was running, and the rolls were unguarded, according to the OSHA report.
6. Remove purge guards. "This is incredibly dumb, but we see it all the time," says Mark Zulas, service manager at injection machine supplier Niigata Engineering Co., Itasca, Ill. "When our service technicians visit a plant, that's something we have to write up and notify plant managers about." Processors leave the clear plastic guards off because they get scratched and cloudy and hurt visibility. "All they have to do is buy another cheap sheet of Plexiglas and attach it," says Zulas. Without guards, operators risk serious burns if hot plastic spurts out. An operator died in 1996 as a result of a sudden expulsion of molten PE from an extruder at Haviland Drainage Products in Haviland, Ohio. OSHA reports the cause of death was an asthma attack caused by the trauma from these burns.
7. Don't train operators properly. Workers rate safety as the most important part of training for plastics processing. Inexperience or lack of proper safety training can cause horrific accidents. At 11:15 p.m. on Oct. 14, 1995, a 48-year-old operator at Transamerican Plastics Corp., Ontario, Calif., was winding thick plastic sheet on rolls. He cut the plastic film from the top winder with his right hand and attempted to wind the plastic film on the bottom winder with his left hand. His hand was pulled between the film and the bottom roll, fracturing his forearm. He was hospitalized for three days, according to the accident investigation summary from the Labor Dept.'s Occupational Safety & Health Administration.
Two months later, at about 5:00 a.m. on Dec. 16, a second employee at Transamerica, 35 years old, followed the same procedures and had the same accident, resulting in the same injury. "The employees were fairly new and not trained properly," notes the OSHA report. It adds, "The in-running side of the roll was not provided with a barrier guard to prevent the operator's hand or fingers from getting caught between the film and the roll." The employer was fined $5000.
8. Don't use proper lock-out/tag-out. Disabling safety devices on gates to injection and blow molding machines invites operators to crush fingers, hands, heads, and whole bodies between moving molds. Yet it's a common OSHA violation. On older injection machines with safety drop bars, processors often lift the bar and don't reset it, says Niigata's Zulas. "We also see machines where they pull the electrical safety out of the way with tape. I've seen that even at big companies."
Processors have been known to remove safety gates altogether because they interfere with the mold cycle. Or they cut a hole in the gates so an operator can reach through to remove a part.
9. Climb into machinery. Grinders, dryers, or hoppers all present opportunities for reckless behavior if operators ignore safety training and lock-out procedures. An employee was cleaning a loading chute for a Banbury mixer at Mach 1 Compounding in Macedonia, Ohio, in early 1992, when a pin securing the ram apparently came loose. The 580-lb ram came down on his neck and shoulders cutting off his air supply. Co-workers and paramedics performed CPR and rushed him to the hospital, but he died. The processor was fined $13,590.
10. Break the same OSHA rules over and over again. OSHA fines for willful and repeated violations are far higher than for first infractions. And fines for willful violations aren't apt to be reduced on appeal. This past April, Ametek's Westchester Plastics Div. in Wapakoneta, Ohio, was fined $117,000, most of it ($75,000) for three repeat violations including lock-out/tag-out failures.
Most fines are much smaller, but repeat offenses add up
OSHA is watching
Processors are frequently unaware of safety regulations from OSHA and standards for machine safety promulgated by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). "In plastics, small operations grow rapidly but don't always know what their safety requirements are," says Guritza of Environmental Strategies. "These businesses are focusing on productivity, and there's often no line item for safety," adds Guritza, who just completed a survey of 1400 processors in the Midwest.
OSHA regulations tend to say what processors should do
What is OSHA looking for? "They want everything in the plant to be where it belongs," says Kelly Trupp, a certified engineering technician who trains customers for injection machine maker Engel Canada Inc. in Guelph, Ont. Trupp says he can tell the moment he walks into a plant that it has been through an OSHA audit: "Floors are clean, everything is in its place, and warning signs are posted everywhere."
ANSI standards, usually developed by the machine producers, cover the specifics of how to ensure machine safety. For example, the latest ANSI requirement states that horizontal injection presses with 47 in. or more of daylight between tiebars
That attitude can put an employer on the spot when an injury occurs, says SPI's Bishop. "Then OSHA comes in and finds the violations." Under the "General Duty" clause in its regulations, OSHA can hold an employer responsible for meeting "voluntary" standards like those from ANSI.
Processors may not realize that OSHA can bring criminal charges against individual managers or supervisors. A supervisor is being charged criminally right now in a case involving an injection molding fatality.