There's no question manufacturing still can be a dangerous occupation. Conditions are nowhere near like they were even a couple of generations ago, but there still is the fear that danger can be around the corner in any industrial workplace.
That fear hit home in the most tragic way in two recent incidents in the rubber industry.
First was the May 3 explosion at the Waukegan, Ill., factory of AB Specialty Silicones that killed four employees, including two of the owners of the producer of silicone raw materials. The explosion was so powerful it caused significant damage to about a half-dozen other area facilities, with overall damages estimated to exceed $1 million.
The second was at a Liberty Tire Recycling plant in Des Moines, Iowa, in which an employee got his right arm caught in a conveyor system and lost part of it.
Safety has been given a perceived higher priority in the rubber and other manufacturing incidents in recent years. There are programs to recognize safety and achievement, programs that all manufacturers should take to heart.
But these two incidents are a reminder of the importance of anticipating every conceivable hazard, following safety regulations to the letter, and—above all—training your employees to maximize safety and respond to dangerous situations.
The explosion at AB Specialty Silicones and the accident at Liberty Tire brought stories of how workers had responded heroically. The four men who died at AB Silicones spent their last seconds of life warning their colleagues of the explosion that was about to occur, and the workers at Liberty Tire teamed together to help the injured man. Courage, sacrifice, teamwork—those are all-important everywhere, but never more than in the case of a workplace accident.
A look at the Occupational Health and Safety Administration's website gives some statistics that indicate that workplace safety might not be getting all the attention it deserves. In the scheme of things, the Federal OSHA is a small agency, with 10 regional offices and 85 local area offices. Its budget is fairly stagnant, with fiscal 2019 funding at $557.8 million, or $5 million more than the prior year.
Combined, OSHA and its state partners have only 2,100 inspectors to watch over the health and safety of 130 million workers spread among 8 million work sites in the U.S.
That's one compliance officer for every 59,000 workers.
Still, OSHA reports that for nearly five decades, the number of worker deaths have dropped from nearly 38 per day in 1970 to roughly 14 a day in 2017. It credited not only the efforts of the agency and its state partners, but also those of employers, safety and health professionals, unions and advocates for the drastic improvements.
Out of 4,674 worker fatalities in private industry in 2017, construction was the most deadly profession, accounting for 20.7 percent of the deaths. By comparison, the rubber and plastics industries had 15 reported fatalities in 2017, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
These improvements are admirable, but don't squelch the sense that they could be even better.