NOT LONG AGO, a group of recycling workers returning from a break discovered a fresh paper bale with the bloody shirt of a worker's uniform wrapped around the side of the bale. When they pried open the bale, they found what was left of their coworker. Apparently, he had delayed going on break with his friends to loosen a paper jam. He had neglected to shut down the baler. So when he loosened the jam, he fell into the chamber causing the machine to cycle.

In another accident, workers found two severed legs lying in a baler chamber long after the emergency medical technicians (EMTs) had taken the victim to the hospital.

Still another baler victim died on the way to the hospital. While carrying the body into the emergency room, EMTs noticed that the sheets covering the victim were perfectly clean. By the time they had pulled the severed body from the baler, all of the blood had drained from his upper torso.

The awful truth about baler accidents is that virtually no one survives. Injury statistics are nearly nonexistent. Balers do not injure. They kill.

“I know of only one person that has ever survived a direct impact from a ram,” says Mike Mattia, president of safety consulting firm Recycling Risk Management LLC, Gaithersburg, Md. “The ram cut him in half. He's still alive, but his life expectancy is not good.”

According to the Washington, D.C.-based Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc. (ISRI), balers crushed 41 workers to death between 1986 and 2001. Vertical balers killed 12 people, and horizontal balers killed 29.

ISRI's analysis of the accidents shows that the deaths related to vertical balers stemmed from compromised or missing safety devices. In other words, the automatic shut-off device connected to the chamber doors had been broken or disabled. Victims opened the doors, crawled into the chambers and the rams crushed them.

Most deaths caused by horizontal balers occur when workers climb up onto the conveyers feeding the machines and attempt to loosen jams. In these cases, the worker succeeds, frees the jam, then loses his balance and falls into the chamber. This trips the sensors telling the ram that the chamber is full and activates a baling cycle.

Another fact about horizontal baler fatalities is that the majority — 24 of the 29 deaths studied by ISRI — involve paper balers. Metal balers caused only five deaths in the ISRI study. The difference has to do with a lack of respect for paper, Mattia contends. “No one in his right mind will scamper up a conveyor filled with metal to poke it down into an infeed,” he says. “No one thinks twice about climbing up to free a paper jam.”

An Inconvenience

“There are immediate positive consequences for unsafe behavior,” says Tony Samento, president of Samento Industrial Training Systems, Inc., an industrial safety consulting and training firm in Mechanicsburg, Pa. “It is quicker, easier and more productive if you don't take the time to lock a machine out. You can get a longer lunch break. You can increase productivity. The only negative consequence for unsafe behavior is the potential for injury, which you believe will not happen to you. You know the machine. You've been running it for 20 years.”

Safety training, according to Samento, must overcome the sense of convenience connected to unsafe behavior. His approach is to instill respect for industrial equipment by talking about the possibility that you might kill yourself by ignoring matters of safety.

“Training is about competency,” he says. “Our goal is to get employees to understand that safety doesn't belong to the company or to OSHA (Occupational Health and Safety Administration) — it belongs to each and every one of us. And our approach to training is very, very personal.”

For several years, Samento offered a safety presentation titled, “Voids In Thinking From The Coroner's Point of View.” A coroner delivered the presentation. Today, Samento's presentation begins with a story from his past. He once worked for a paper processor and handled jobs as a forklift driver, crane operator and baler operator.

“One day, right after a lock-out, tag-out training session, I walked back to the floor and saw an operator get sucked into a high-speed paper machine,” he recalls. “I still remember him screaming and looking right at me. I could see that he knew that there was absolutely nothing anyone could do to stop what was about to happen. When we got him out, one of his arms was two-and-one-half feet wide and no thicker than a piece of paper.”

The incident motivated Samento to embark on a new career in safety training. “I had been going to safety training sessions for years,” he says. “No one really took the training seriously. It was considered a joke. Our goal is to get people to understand that this stuff happens to people every day, and lives are ended and changed as a result.”

Idiot Proofing

There is nothing complicated about baler safety. Generally, it involves two basic principles: never disable the automatic shutoff devices connected to baler doors; always lock out the machine before climbing into it.

Cougle's Recycling Inc. (CRI), Hamburg, Pa., has taken its lock-out procedure a step further. When the maintenance technician locks out the machine at the control panel, he removes the key that allows the machine to be turned back on, puts it in his pocket and carries it into the machine with him. “If someone shuts the door while the maintenance tech is inside the machine working, you could start the machine up again — if you had the key,” says Matthew Cougle, CRI's chief operating officer. “To make sure that can't happen, the person doing the work always takes the key with him.”

Companies can do more than simply locking out balers. “Lock-out, tag-out is important, but it isn't idiot proof,” says Mattia of Recycling Risk Management. “If I have a machine as dangerous as a baler, I want safety to be idiot proof. That means implementing a variety of safety measures just in case someone doesn't lock out the baler.”

This could make it easier to ignore the lock-out procedures. On the other hand, Mattia notes that a number of accidents have been caused when workers wrongly believe that a baler has been locked out. In one case, a baler jammed, and a worker pointed to the machine and told a coworker to lock it out. The coworker promptly locked down the conveyor line, not realizing that the conveyor and baler were two separate entities. A third worker hustled up the conveyor to free the jam, succeeded and fell in. The baler, of course, had not been locked out, and it cycled.

In more common accidents, a baler operator will note a jam on the in-feed conveyor and decide the problem is too simple to go to the trouble of locking out the machine. The operator scampers up the conveyor thinking that he is experienced enough to avoid injury.

These examples illustrate why Mattia urges recyclers to go beyond conventional lock-out training for operators and to think about safety design additions to the baler line.

“You can install a ladder that goes up the side of the baler's in-feed,” he suggests. With a ladder providing access, the operator will not be tempted to balance himself on a conveyor angled at 45 degrees down into the in-feed opening. Instead, the operator will remain on the outside of the chute.

“You can also hang a tool up there, so the operator can free the jam without climbing too close to the opening,” Mattia adds. “Remember, this is not something to do in lieu of lock-out. It is a safety design measure to add to the lock-out process.” If the operator fails to lock out the machine, he will be less likely to fall in when freeing the jam.

Baler manufacturers usually add automatic shut-off switches to doors providing access to the baling chamber. When the door opens, the machine shuts down. Mattia notes that these switches require regular inspections. They sometimes break. Sometimes, the baler operator disables them. Finding and fixing these problems is an important part of baler safety, he says.

Additionally, when baler users construct additions to in-feed chutes to accommodate the conveyors feeding a baler, they often add doors that lead into the chute. Mattia recommends equipping these doors with automatic shut-down switches and regularly inspecting them.

Emergency Stops

Baler users can go even further to add supplemental emergency stops to their equipment. At CRI, for example, sorters work up on a conveyor feeding a horizontal baler. This creates the possibility that someone could get snagged by material moving on the conveyor, dragged up the inclined feed line and dumped into the chute. To prevent this, the company has devised its own safety shut-down system. A cord runs parallel to the conveyor line. By reaching up and pulling the cord, a worker caught on the conveyor can shut down the baler. The idea for the system came from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, which regularly audits CRI's plant in preparation for OSHA inspections.

Midland Davis Corp., a Moline, Ill.-based recycler, has installed a commercially designed emergency shut down system, too. “Everyone working around the conveyor wears a special belt equipped with small transmitters,” says Marty Davis, Midland's president.

If someone cleaning up around the conveyor falls onto the belt and is being carried toward the baler, the transmitters on the belt communicate with sensors on a bar installed above the conveyor. The transmitters tell the sensors to shut down the conveyor.

“That's a good idea,” Mattia says. “You can always add another layer of safety.”

Michael Fickes is Waste Age's business editor based in Cockeysville, Md.


It is not always enough to blanket a baler with safety procedures and devices. Bales produced by the baler also are dangerous. Between 1985 and 2001, 14 workers died when bales fell on them, according to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc., Washington, D.C. Again, the main culprit was paper. Falling paper bales caused 11 of the 14 deaths.

“People don't respect paper bales, although they weigh between 1,000 and 2,000 pounds,” says Mike Mattia, president of Recycling Risk Management LLC, Gaithersburg, Md. “In scrap yards, I often see metal bales stacked three high. But paper bale stacks go up has high as seven bales — and they fall on people.”

Mattia recommends limiting paper bale stacks to three bales and urges recyclers to make sure the sturdiest bales are on the bottom.

He also warns against stacking bales too close to the back gate of trucks. Workers have been killed when bales, made unstable during transportation, have fallen out of a truck when the truck door opened, he says. Even worse, workers climbing into trucks with bales set against the gate opening have, in the past, grabbed bales to hoist themselves up, pulling unstable bales down on themselves.

“When loading a truck, never stack all the way to the back of the trailer,” Mattia says. “And never stack the bales at the rear of the load more than one high.”