In industries with high potential risks for employees, having the right protective equipment should be an essential part of any business's safety strategy

The paper, plastics and packaging industries make up a significant segment of the UK's manufacturing sector, and between them employ about 300,000 people full time[1]. One of the biggest priorities for all companies in this sector is employee safety.

All three make an important contribution to the national economy and employ large numbers of people. The plastic industry alone has an annual turnover of £23.5 billion and a workforce of 182,000. The paper industry turnovers £12 billion a year and employs 62,000, while the figures for the packaging industry are £11 billion and 85,000.

Workers in each of these industries face potential risks – from the common dangers at all manufacturing plants such as (slips, trips and machines with moving parts) to specific hazards such as dust in paper mills, sharp objects in packaging factories and chemicals in plastic manufacturers.

"Safety and health are key to the success and sustainability of businesses. If you look after your people, the returns on this investment are extremely significant"Jimmy Quinn, President of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health

When it comes to implementing a successful workplace safety strategy, Jimmy Quinn, President of the Institution of Occupational Health and Safety (IOSH), believes that company culture is key. “Safety and health are key to the success and sustainability of businesses. If you look after your people, the returns on this investment are extremely significant”.

Quinn says the COVID-19 pandemic has focused attention on health and safety for the whole workforce. “Around the world, our members have helped their businesses and the clients they work with implement measures which ensure the risks of virus transmission are managed. “They are also managing the risks of mental health and wellbeing and, with many people working remotely, ensuring employees aren’t at risk of suffering with musculoskeletal issues.”

Quinn adds that one of the lessons from the pandemic has been the importance of having trained safety people. “As businesses learn to manage the risks of COVID-19, there has been growing recognition of the importance of the role occupational safety and health professionals play,” he says.

Effective safety equipment
In virtually all paper, packaging and plastics companies, employees are likely to be working with or around large pieces of machinery, which leads to a higher level of risk. “With this sort of machinery, it’s important to have sensors, guards, emergency cut-offs and appropriate signage to help protect workers,” explains Craig Stasik, Industry Sector Manager at RS. “It’s vital that all this equipment is well maintained and doing the job it was designed for.” 
“You also have to consider the individual safety of each employee so that they have the right products to protect themselves while working around the premises,” he adds. “Workers need the right footwear and the correct personal protective equipment (PPE). For example, paper mills generate large volumes of dust particles, so it's vital that employees exposed to this have the correct masks in place to keep the dust out of their respiratory system.”
Another important element in protecting workers is ensuring that they use ATEX equipment, which is specially designed to be used in potentially hazardous environments. “In the packaging industry, one of the biggest risks is fire, particularly where you have paper and cardboard manufacturing,” says Stasik. “With the dust that is created during this process, it’s important workers don't ignite this, so companies should be providing employees with ATEX equipment and specialist anti-spark tools, such as hammers and saws designed not to create sparks while in use.”
Risk-appropriate protection
Another major risk, particularly with canning or bottling companies, is working with sharp materials. Stasik points out that it’s vital that workers have appropriate hand and foot protection, which is often at a much higher standard than normal protective materials.
“To get all the right protective equipment in place, our team at RS visit a customer and carry out audits so that we can establish the risks and what level of protection is needed,” he explains. “We then offer a range of products/brands that meet those requirements.”
"It’s important for companies to work with distributors with a full, traceable supply chain"Craig Stasik, Industry Sector Manager, RS

“One of the key changes in recent years is in hearing protection. We’ve enhanced our technological capabilities and we can help customers to audit their hearing requirements to the new standards,” he explains. “It’s important for companies to work with distributors with a full, traceable supply chain. Both the distributors and manufacturers of those products are accountable. We can only sell products which conform to the most up-to-date regulations.

In addition to ensuring a company has the best safety equipment in place for their staff, it’s also important to look at ways to make efficiencies in the process of ordering these products. Tiwana recommends that businesses try to harmonise the brands that they use – many companies have equipment made by dozens of different brands, which can be both costly, and confusing for users.

“We can offer inventory management solutions so that there is stock available with fast delivery when new safety equipment is needed, and it can be ordered simply and quickly,” says Stasik. “This helps reduce time wasted and also the cost to the business. If the buyer is wasting time looking around for a piece of equipment either in their own store room, or via non-approved suppliers, they can end up making a rushed decision and either spend too much money, or worse, buy the wrong equipment, which will not offer the level of protection required.”