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Safety: remember when?

Safety: Remember when?

Remember back then? Years ago? Life was so much easier. Especially the job. We didn't have OSHA to worry about. Or the EPA. Or toxic wastes. Or all those other hassles. There just wasn't as much paper. Regulations and certifications were nonexistent. Ah yes, those were the days. Or were they?

What was it really like?

Life in the rubber factories was a lot different 100 years ago. I guess that's about when it started. Unfortunately, not too many folks are left that worked in the rubber shops then. There are a few left, however, who worked in them in the mid-1920s and 30s. And the stories they tell.

When you first walked into the shop, it was easy to tell who did what. That is, if you could see in the dim light through the clouds of black dust. Millmen were the easiest to spot. They were the ones with less than 10 fingers. Of course, every once in a while you might mistake a calender operator for a millman. Safety stops were really interesting, if they existed at all. Even where they did exist, they were rarely ever tested.

I was told about one such device that used a hanging weight to stop the mill. When a certain cord was pulled, power to the mill motor was cut and a weight would drop, slowing the mill rolls. With this device, it was actually possible to stop the mill turning in 2 or 3 revolutions. Hence the first lesson learned when training to use a mill was to keep your hands out of the nip. The ones who didn't learn, didn't get a second chance.

Open mill mix and Banbury operators could also be distinguished. They were the ones with the incessant cough who spit up black phlegm every five minutes or so. Open mill mixing was not very enjoyable. Especially with no hoods to remove dust from the mill area. Dust masks? Only sissies would wear those, right? Lucky operators might be close enough to a window to catch a breeze for ventilation. Fans came later.

Any chemical or filler that was thought of could be used. Common ones included asbestos and litharge (lead oxide). PBNA (phenyl-betanaphthylamine) was a preferred anti-oxidant. And aniline was used for cure acceleration. People would get to virtually bathe themselves in these chemicals. Most of the time, the operators and weigh-up men had no idea what they were using. Everything was coded. Couldn't take the chance of letting the competition know what was being used. It was not uncommon for the people exposed to these chemicals to develop burns and blisters from the chemicals. But they dared not ask what might be causing the problem. Even if they asked, it was rare that they were told.

Curing room personnel were a cut above the millroom. The only thing they had to put up with was heat. And burns. And heat. And fumes. And more heat.

The curing presses weren't that bad. In fact, there are probably a lot of them still in use today. What was really unique were the autoclaves. Especially the big ones. They were vented right into the room. Steam and fumes (remember, virtually everything was sulfur cured). Temperatures of 130 [degrees] and more.

Tire builders and others assembling various rubber parts probably had it the best. They had some dust to put up with, but not nearly as bad as in the millroom. And while the rubber tended to smell, it was not nearly as bad as the curing room. Generally, they had more windows for ventilation. All in all, it wasn't such a bad job. Except maybe for "benny." I imagine most of the tackifying solvent in the tire room is still called that. Short for benzene. These guys (after all, who ever heard of women in the factory?) were treated to a slow death - from cancer.

For the people in the cement house, they really got bathed in solvent. All kinds. Including some other nice ones like carbon tetrachloride and chloroform. And why would anyone ever ground a mixer?

Guards on machines? Who would do that? After all, workers had to be smart enough to keep their hands out of the gears and belts.

"Clickers" were real good at eating fingers. They had a tendency to come down just as a die was being moved under the cutting platen. And if you had a finger hooked inside the die to remove it from the last cut - well, so much for that finger.

Yes, there was a lot less paper then. And regulations were so much easier.

When we look back at the way it was, it's easy to remember the simplicity - and easy to forget the problems. Back in the early part of the century, management was the king. The workers were peasants. While few bosses would will accidents and harm to their workers, the idea of "accident prevention" was simply non-existent. Usually, verbal instructions - "Don't do this..." and "Make sure you do this..." was as far as it went. No one thought more was needed.

Then came the war. World War I, that is. And America was more concerned about production than safety.

After that came the 20s. Still, more concern about production than anything else. At this point, management began to concern itself with safety - when economics justified it. Accidents began to be investigated from time to time. When causes were identified and when the cost to fix the problem was small, corrective action would occur. Sometimes. Often the "fix" made it possible for the work to get done, but ignored the real problem. Workers were still cheap.

Then came the 30s. And the Great Depression. Any idea of safety in the workplace went right down the toilet - with the rest of the economy. Anybody with a job was glad of it. And nobody could afford to complain about a safety problem. First of all, the company couldn't or wouldn't spend money to fix something it didn't absolutely have to. Second, there were more than enough workers available so that if one was lost (or fired), he could be replaced immediately. Not much chance of sticking up for safety.

Towards the end of the 30s, the union influence was beginning to really be felt. However, the initial union thrust was wages and job security. Safety became secondary. The real objective was to get people on the payroll and make sure they were earning enough to live on.

Then came the next war. World War II. And while workers were not plentiful, to complain about safety and divert money from the production effort to fix a safety problem, well, that was downright Un-American. The workforce was changing, however. They were better educated. And they were beginning to look at their environment. What they put up with 15 years before, was no longer acceptable. People were beginning to become "aware."

After the war, safety and health of employees became a greater issue. Through the rest of the 1940s and 50s, physical safety of employees became an issue. The primary concern was with immediate physical dangers. Guards on machinery. Safety stops that actually worked. They even began to install ventilation. Fans to both draw in fresh air and others to pull some of the dust out. Nurses began to be employed in the factories to address some health problems. But there were still wide differences between factories.

Unions also became more involved in the conditions in the workplace. While it was just as important to be sure of a regular paycheck, it was becoming more important to be able to be sure that you could work years on a job without losing part of your body - or life. Also, management was beginning to realize they had an investment in their employees that was worth protecting.

Then came the sixties. That magical age. I guess that's because I started working in the industry then. However, as I look back, this was a dramatic period. By this time, virtually all the employees coming into the industry had high school diplomas. Even on the factory floor, college educations were not uncommon. Also, management recognized training costs, downtime losses and other economies that prior to this, were not as "important."

Mechanical safeguards were the immediate concern. But with increased education, workers were becoming more concerned with chemical also. As a chemist, I can recall a number of workers asking about the chemicals and various ingredients. Many studies were initiated and, finally, the government began to get actively involved with worker safety. "Inquisitiveness" had arrived and with it, "Awareness."

Then, of course, the seventies. And with it, OSHA. And the EPA. And government regulation. To a very large degree, unions were responsible for OSHA. And justifiably so. Management in general did not accept government regulation with open arms. However, since it was applied to all manufacturers, it allowed management to take steps in worker safety that were more difficult to take before. With regulation, manufacturers could invest in worker safety without hurting themselves competitively on manufacturing costs. While none wanted this type of regulation (and some actively fought it), it was finally accepted.

The inquisitiveness of the seventies brought with it knowledge in the eighties. Knowledge that many of us didn't really want - but that we couldn't do without. Knowledge of the Love Canal. And Bhopal. And toxic substances. We found out that an awful lot of the chemicals that had been used and accepted through the previous decades were bad for us. We had already put some of them in our drinking water. We found out that we were unknowingly poisoning the earth and ourselves.

How about now?

It's the latter part of the 1980s. Our factories today don't look much like those of 80 or 100 years ago. The adversarial relationship between management, the unions and government is much more cooperative than it used to be - at least in the area of health and safety.

Accidents still occur. However, accidents that do occur are investigated and corrective action taken in virtually all cases. Safety is viewed as an important aspect of plant operations. Management has found it important to include safety as a distinct management function. Forty years ago, money spent on safety was viewed as an expense only. And a low priority at that. Today, there is a recognized economic return on money invested in safety.

As we walk through the factory today, we can see quite a lot of differences from the factory we viewed at the beginning of this article. First, you can see. Lighting is better. And the dust level is much lower. Out in the millroom there are no open gears and belts. All are enclosed. Millmen are not as easily picked out.

Safety is designed into the equipment to begin with. Where necessary, special safety equipment is within easy grasp of all machines. Additional general safety equipment is placed at strategic locations throughout the factory for quick access. This includes blocks and jacks around sills, showers and eye wash basins in areas where splashes can occur. Even stretchers and first aid kits on walls. Respirators are available for the asking. And if the worker wants to know more about any of the materials he is working with, he only needs to ask.

In addition to various safety equipment for the machinery, virtually all rubber manufacturers have a regular program of training on how to use the equipment. Safety stops on mills and mixers are checked regularly. Interlocks are placed in electrical circuits to prevent accidental starting of the equipment when being worked on. And accident frequency has been significantly reduced.

Chemical exposure has been dramatically reduced. Use of hoods for dust and fume removal has helped. In areas where direct exposure occurs, respirators, protective clothing and gloves are often provided. While rare in the rubber business, full "space suits" are available to further limit exposure to extremely hazardous materials. Training on hazards, both physical and chemical, is common in most factories today. This training often applies not only to workers at the company, but also outside contractors and plant visitors. The recently passed "Worker Right to Know" legislation has ensured that employers provide adequate information to employees on the materials they handle.

In addition, today's workers are actively involved with management in the area of safety. This includes functions through representative union groups as well as official participation with management on safety committees and individual knowledge in their specific job function. Many managers today recognize that the worker on the floor knows more about his specific job than anyone else. With that knowledge, they are in the best position to spot potential problem areas.

One of the most active safety issues in the last decade has been toxic chemical exposure. While a number of items such as lead compounds and some solvents have long been recognized as hazardous to health, recent work has expanded this recognition to other chemicals.

Because of our improved detection capability, there is currently debate on what level of exposure is pertinent in many cases. In the past, laws have been written that allow "no" exposure. However, as test methods have improved, the levels at which a chemical can be detected are significantly reduced. A decade ago, researchers talked in parts per million. Currently, work is being conducted at a parts per billion level and even parts per trillion is being discussed. "Not detectable" means something entirely different today than it did even ten years ago.

A major factor in factory conditions today stems from the fact that the workforce is much better educated. Those entering the workforce come out of school with a greater amount of knowledge than people did fifty years ago. Plus with the advent of television and radio, the public is better informed.

As a result, they demand more information. Part of the result is increased training, both by management and by unions. With the increased knowledge, workers have more safety conscious work habits. They demand safer working conditions. Studies into both physical and chemical health problems are being funded by various unions and management as well as various government agencies.

Fifty years ago, there were a lot of places in the factory where people could not hear. Even by shouting. Today, while there is still noise, its adverse effect is better recognized.

Where are we going?

What are the issues today? Certainly, chemical exposure is still a hot topic. And will continue to be so. However, it's likely that over the next decade or so, there will be more knowledgeable response and less reaction to new findings. I also believe that there will be increased awareness of combination effects. That is, while chemical A by itself and chemical B by itself are alright, together, they cause a problem. Like cigarette smoking and asbestos exposure.

However, I've been told that the nineties will be the age of "Ergonomics" - the study of motion and repetitive motion. Workstations and tasks will be redesigned to reduce the physical strain of particular motions. In some cases, work areas will be "custom fit" to the employee.

This will be related to improved productivity. And management will begin to see greater returns on their money invested in safety. Aside from avoidance of fines, it may actually begin to make economic sense to invest in worker safety.

Where it's still necessary to work with hazardous chemicals, robots will find increasing value. Likewise with highly repetitive tasks.

And the knowledge base of employees will continue to rise. But we have a number of hurdles to cross. These include:

* Communication. Better understanding of regulations and requirements. Also, more pertinent information transfer between involved parties. One of the unfortunate occurrences under the OSHA Right To Know regulations is the fact that the philosophy of saving one's job prevails. Perspective on relative importance is lost in the effort to protect from contingencies.

* Uniform application of regulations. Currently, virtually all of the major companies are up-to-the-minute on all regulations and actively involved in new research. However, as the company size diminishes, knowledge and capability in this area also diminish. Small companies just don't have the depth of resources to address many of the problems and concerns as well. This problem must be addressed - fairly. Eighty percent of the nation's workforce is employed in companies of less than 200 people.

* Coordinating regulatory effort. Currently, there are so many different regulatory agencies involved in handling of hazardous materials and use in the workplace that it is virtually impossible to 1) be aware of who is in charge and 2) to know what is to be done. Unfortunately, regulations even conflict from agency to agency. There are cases where by complying to one set of regulations, you violate another and vice versa. Remedies must be found here to simplify compliance and reduce the overall economic impact of regulation.

* Lack of skills. There are currently just not enough trained professionals in the area of Industrial Health and Safety. It is a specialized, growing field that will require more personnel than are currently available.

* Time. All of these efforts require time. Time to understand. Time to train. And time to comply. In the push to become more competitive in the international marketplace, often adequate time is not made available to address critical health and safety issues.

In fifteen years, we will have entered the third millennia AD. The hurdles we are now facing will have been crossed and we will look back to today as "back then."

Hazardous chemicals and work areas will still exist. And new challenges will have to be conquered. And, we will do it with a little bit more safety.
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Copyright 1989, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Rubber World 100th anniversary
Author:Menough, Jon
Publication:Rubber World
Date:Oct 1, 1989
Previous Article:Developments in compounding.
Next Article:Rubber education: a short history, a long future.

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