As paper industry employees and their families already know, paper mills are extraordinarily dangerous places to work.  In fact, roughly ten American paper mill workers die from work-related causes each year, and most tragically, these deaths are almost universally preventable.

There’s a great deal of confusion surrounding what it takes to create a safe work environment in a paper mill, and this confusion only makes it easier for mills and mill equipment manufacturers to get away with putting workers at risk. The Stoddard Firm is committed to cutting through the half-truths and misconceptions – we hold corporations accountable for their safety violations.

Safety Gear and Training Is Not Enough

When people think about preventing workplace accidents, images of protective eyewear, steel-toed boots, and safety training videos are quick to spring to mind. While safety training and personal safety devices are inarguably important — and a disturbing number of workplace accidents still happen because of employers failing to provide these cheap, simple essentials — they should only be the last of several lines of defense.

The most effective safety standards are based on a concept called the Hierarchy of Controls. The Hierarchy of Controls is a set of accident prevention methods ranked from most effective to least effective. According to this hierarchy, if equipment manufacturers and paper mill employers wish to prevent accidents, they should start with the most effective methods first, and only if these are impossible to implement, move down the list from there.

  1. If a machine pinch point could crush an arm or leg, for example, the manufacturer should redesign the machine to eliminate the pinch point or re-design the machine to reduce the force of the moving parts such that if an arm or leg becomes pinched, the machine force is not strong enough to crush the worker’s limb.
  2. Engineering Controls. Many workplace hazards cannot be completely eliminated because they are essential to the functioning of the machine, but in many cases the hazard can be virtually eliminated by safeguards instituted at the engineering level. Said differently, the machine can be designed with safeguarding controls such that a worker never comes in contact with the danger area.  Examples of engineering controls are automatic shutdown mechanisms, interlock switches with guard locking, capture key systems, fencing, area scanners, pressure mats, and physical guards that will not allow a worker to become hurt.
  3. Administrative Controls. Only if a hazard cannot be eliminated or protected with an engineering control should a manufacturer rely on worker safety training. While safety training is important, instituting procedures like lockouts are never 100% effective.
  4. Personal Protective Equipment. All the way down at number five, in the least effective position, are the gloves, boots, hats, earplugs, and other personal devices we associate with work safety. Just like the administrative controls, these systems are flawed because they will never have a 100% success rate.

As you can see, personal safety equipment and administrative controls should never be a substitute for a thorough approach to accident prevention through elimination of a hazard and engineering controls that guard workers. In fact, any time a job requires personal safety equipment, it’s worth examining whether the machine manufacturer has done everything possible to eliminate or minimize the danger in the first place.

Bad Safety Training Can Be Worse than None at All

The administrative controls tier of accident prevention can be especially problematic, because administrative decisions often aren’t made with employees’ best interests in mind, even when it comes to instituting safety programs.

In 2010, the United Steelworkers (USW), a union that also includes forestry and paper industry workers, released a report discussing the 33 fatalities that occurred in American paper mills over the previous five years. The report examined the counter-productive company policies that failed to keep these workers safe — in other words, ineffective administrative controls.

The results showed that many deadly paper mills offered “safety training” that promoted the false belief that most on-the-job accidents are the result of reckless employee behavior. These mills might also offer their employees incentives for going a certain length of time without reporting an accident. The operative word, of course, is “reporting.” Some even went so far as to threaten employees with targeted drug testing or outright discipline if they report injuries, near-misses, or unsafe conditions.

Obviously, nobody wants to get hurt or needs an incentive to avoid it. Rather, these programs all share the objective of deflecting blame onto employees, keeping them quiet, and protecting the company from having to invest in safety.

OSHA Has Specific Regulations Just for the Paper Industry

Clearly, there’s more to paper mill safety than drilling employees on safe procedures and handing out goggles. As in any industry, OSHA plays a major role in monitoring workplace safety. Paper-making is hazardous enough that the list of OSHA requirements tailored to this industry alone is nearly twenty pages long. These regulations focus on safety measures that can reasonably be achieved at the factory level, yet inspections and post-accident investigations regularly find violations of these life-saving rules.

In 2015, after a man was killed in a Clearwater Paper mill in Wisconsin, OSHA found that not only had the man been working on a machine that was not properly locked out, but other workers in the mill often worked directly under high-speed conveyor belts, placing them at risk of being pulled into the machinery.  Again though, if the machine had been properly designed so as not to require employee lock-out, the incident may have been totally prevented.

Two years later, in Mississippi, OSHA fined a Drehle Corp. paper mill over $300,000 for unguarded machines, tripping hazards, and a combination of arcing electricity and sawdust buildup that could have caused a flash fire.

While it’s important to note that following OSHA regulations to the letter is only part of what it takes to create a truly safe paper mill, they’re certainly a good place to start when gauging an individual mill’s commitment to safety. A few highlights of OSHA’s requirements for paper mills include:

  • Instant shutdown features on paper machines
  • Guards over hazardous machine parts
  • Lockout procedures to prevent machine start-up during service
  • Easily accessible gas masks capable of filtering out chlorine gas
  • Emergency showers in case of chemical burns
  • Provided face shields, gloves, and aprons

If a mill doesn’t get the basics right, it’s usually a clue that there are lots more safety violations to be found if an inspector looks closely.

The Paper Industry Uses Especially Hazardous Machines

The Hierarchy of Controls puts engineering controls before administrative controls, and for good reason. This is because no set of safety policies, whether laid out by OSHA or by the mill itself, can truly compensate for machinery that hasn’t been well designed with safety as a primary consideration. A lockout procedure jury-rigged on site will never be as effective at preventing injuries as a built-in system of interlocks and sensors designed to make sure a machine can never start up at the wrong moment.

Before OSHA or company management even gets involved, the safety of a paper mill starts with the design of its machinery. Unfortunately, when accidents happen around heavy machinery, people are quick to blame operator error or maintenance standards and rarely give much thought to design. However, companies that manufacture paper mill machinery hold people’s lives in their hands. They can and should be held to the same standard of responsibility as the mills where their machines are used.

In 1999, a man was permanently disabled when his arm became caught in the rollers of a machine at the mill where he worked. His lawsuit against the machine’s manufacturer, Beloit, was originally dismissed, but upon appeal, he was granted a new trial.

More recently, in 2016, a worker in England fell into a pulping machine while servicing it and narrowly escaped with a broken ankle. The company that supplied the machine, Valmet Ltd., was fined £120,000 for failing to include a barrier to prevent such accidents.

Poor Workplace Safety Isn’t Limited to Machinery

Of course, while defective and poorly designed equipment is one of the most overlooked causes of worker fatalities, it’s far from the only cause of death and injury in paper mills. Sometimes perfectly good machinery is unsafely modified, sometimes employees are directed to use it unsafely, and sometimes paper mills contain unsafe conditions completely unrelated to their heavy machinery.

In May of 2018 in South Carolina, a worker at an International Paper mill lost multiple fingers to a paper roller. The next month in Georgia, at another International Paper location, another worker was crushed to death by a collapsing boiler. In December of that same year, in a Kimberly-Clark mill in Texas, a worker was struck by a vehicle in a loading dock — not an equipment issue, but still a serious workplace safety issue.

Back in 2014, at a Domitar paper mill in North Carolina, one man was killed and another injured when a machine’s hydraulic line burst. The next year, in Arkansas, another Domitar employee was killed when she was struck by a railcar.

In short, the exact causes of death and injury in paper mills are widely varied, and determining fault between the mill and the equipment manufacturer can sometimes take some effort, but what’s always clear is that no employee of any industry should ever be subjected to needlessly hazardous work conditions.

The Death Toll of Georgia-Pacific

No discussion of accident-prevention in the paper industry, especially in Georgia, would be complete without a particular mention of Georgia-Pacific. This paradoxical paper producer has been very public about its emphasis on safety, yet its employees continue dying in alarming numbers.

In an article published by the Atlanta Business Chronicle on the 13 employee deaths in Georgia-Pacific facilities from 2000-2003, a spokesperson for Georgia-Pacific noted that the company has been honored on a national level for its safety innovations. She also attributed their unusually high death rate to their recent acquisition of a rival’s less-safe facilities.

However, the Chronicle’s investigation into Georgia-Pacific’s OSHA records found that most of the deaths occurred facilities that had belonged to Georgia-Pacific for decades, and that the company had incurred $67,649 in fines for 76 separate violations in 2003 alone.

Two years after this investigation, Georgia-Pacific was bought out by Koch Industries, and today, in 2019, the story of Georgia-Pacific’s safety record continues with a distinct aura of déjà vu. A new examination of the issue conducted by Fortune Magazine found that employee adherence to safety regulations was treated with “almost religious” reverence within Georgia-Pacific facilities, yet the company’s accident rate has risen over the past five years and is higher than its major competitors.

Suggested explanations for the company’s safety crisis include overwork and overemphasis on production speed. Cost-saving layoffs have left the remaining Georgia-Pacific employees with more grueling schedules and more generalized roles, which require them to use machinery they’re less familiar with. Employees interviewed by Fortune also reported being forced to work as many as 30 days in a row, and to compete with each other for the fastest forklift runs, under the threat of being disciplined or fired for repeatedly being ranked the slowest. One employee said she had gotten into an accident with another forklift operator when both of them had been working for fourteen straight days.

Perhaps not coincidentally, while Georgia-Pacific’s accidents have been on the rise, so have its profits.

The Stoddard Firm Has Experience Holding Mills and Machinery Manufacturers Accountable

If you’ve been injured or lost a loved one to a paper mill accident, The Stoddard Firm can help you get the compensation you need. Pursuing legal recourse also helps make endangering workers less profitable, thereby protecting potential future victims.

We’ll investigate past incidents at the same mill, and involving the same manufacturer’s equipment, to determine exactly what should have been done to prevent the accident from occurring. We know how important it is not only to protect your financial future after an on-the-job accident, but to make sure the whole truth comes to light.

To discuss your case with one of our legal experts today, give us a call at 678-RESULT, or reach out through our online chat function.

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