Major Projects at the BigThree

These examples from Ford, Chrysler and General Motors indicate the varied approaches to ergonomics in the auto industry.

The last 50 years of automobile engine manufacturing unfold before your eyes at Ford Motor Co.'s 365-acre Cleveland Manufacturing Site. It is actually three distinct facilities in one location.

The Cleveland Casting Plant opened in 1952 and much of the original foundry equipment and production methods remain in place. Cleveland Engine Plant No. 1 started up in 1951, but its operations have been revamped several times to keep pace with changes in assembly line technology. Reopened in 1994, Engine Plant No. 2 features state-of-the-art workstations and assembly lines.

What all three have in common are active local ergonomics committees (LECs) and long lists of job improvements.

Ford's Three Plants

Since 1990, the casting plant's eight-member ergonomics committee has identified more than 100 problem jobs and work areas. About 80 of those have been redesigned, including dozens of lift assists to handle sand cores and castings weighing between 20 and 80 pounds.

Bob Hitzelberger, a UAW ergonomics representative, developed carpal tunnel syndrome from manually handling 20-pound sand cores some 350 times per hour. He now says, "I could do that job again once they trained me to use the manipulator."

The casting plant, which has 2,400 hourly workers, also makes extensive use of foam-like padding on tool handles, as well as lift tables and conveyor systems. Besides cutting injuries, the changes have also reduced scrap because of fewer dropped or chipped cores, according to UAW ergonomics representative Bob Kilo.

Next door, at Engine Plant No. 1, a 20-member committee keeps close tabs on its ergonomic concerns log and injury and illness data. Any numerical spikes are addressed immediately, according to Paul Evanich, a production superintendent who co-chairs the biweekly committee meetings.

"We're very data-driven," Evanich said. "With 1,500 hourly workers and maybe 1,000 items to address, we have to prioritize."

Committee members said the best solutions have been spring-loaded lift tables, shock-absorbing hand tools, reduced-weight air guns, stools and footrests, gravity-fed parts tables, drum lifters, and articulating arms to handle crankshafts, which weigh between 40 and 80 pounds.

From 1989 to 1995, Engine Plant No. 1 reduced its cumulative trauma disorder (CTD) incidence rate from 44.7 to 10.3 per 100 full-time workers, said Dwaine Modock, the UAW's committee co-chair.

At Engine Plant No. 2, the 12-member ergonomics committee has been on the job since early 1992, a full two years before production of the new Duratec engines began. It told suppliers it would not accept parts containers weighing more than 35 pounds.

It designed workstations with sit/stand options, air guns with zero torque, and rollers and conveyors that weave their way through the plant to reduce manual handling. The plant allotted $3,000-$5,000 per workstation to address ergonomics at the design stage.

The plant also instituted a flexible modern operating agreement with the UAW. It allows greater use of job rotation and results in faster acceptance of ergonomic controls, according to Sandra Peer, an assembly line employee who sits on the ergonomics committee.

"We share jobs, so everyone benefits when they are improved," she said. "People don't complain. They know we have to work things out as a team."

The payoff: In its first 16 months of operation, the plant of 650 hourly workers had only one cumulative trauma-related injury.

Earlier this year, Engine Plant No. 2 won the prestigious Shingo Prize for manufacturing excellence, which is given by the Utah State University College of Business and the National Association of Manufacturers. After visiting the plant in the spring, OSHA Administrator Joe Dear remarked that it was an "amazingly clean" and safe workplace.

Training at Chrysler

At Chrysler, the major focus is training for ergonomics committee members and others involved in ergonomics. In August, the UAW-Chrysler National Training Center sponsored an ergonomics conference in Detroit. Each of 47 plants sent at least nine LEC members to the conference, which Chrysler hopes to make an annual event.

The conference included two days of basic ergonomics training for about 175 new committee members. The last 2 1/2 days - attended by a total of 350 people - were devoted to case studies of how Chrysler facilities have addressed cost justification, material handling, office ergonomics, hand tools and workstation design.

"The ergonomics committees have been the success story," said Jim Taylor, a management official at the training center. "They need the knowledge to understand the problem and make changes happen."

Concurrent with the conference, UAW-Chrysler kicked off its health and safety specialist certification program. Offered through Ferris State University, Big Rapids, Mich., the program is designed for Chrysler staffers and UAW representatives responsible for safety and health. The first 60 people were tested on topics ranging from ergonomics and indoor air quality to lockout/tagout and confined space safety.

To guide workers through the ergonomics process, the training center offersseven "Partners in Free Motion" guides. They cover: a basic outline; wrists and hands; backs; arms and elbows; neck and shoulders; lower extremities; and office and clerical ergonomics.

GM's Laboratories

Indicative of GM's engineering focus, it is the only one of the Big Three with a dedicated ergonomics laboratory. The lab, which has eight full-time staffers, opened in 1991 at the North American Operations (NAO) Manufacturing Center in Warren, Mich.

In February 1992, the lab, working with engineers and UAW and GM safety and health specialists, internally published a manufacturing ergonomics standard. Designed for engineers and ergonomics committee members, the so-called ERG 1.0 standard covers the design of tools, machines, work space, controls and displays, and lighting.

Among the recommendations:

  • Tools should be designed so they can be used by either the right or left hand in a straight (neutral) wrist position.
  • Pistol-grip power tools with a torque output of greater than 24 inch pounds should be equipped with a reaction torque-limiting device.
  • Ideally, reaches should not exceed 25 inches and work done while standing should be at least 32 inches off the ground.
  • Where possible, employees should be able to "sit and stand at will" to work.

In the last couple of years, the lab has focused on training to help engineers and others identify problems and develop possible solutions. Staffers have trained more than 3,000 people, mostly engineers, according to lab manager Brian Peacock.

"Ergonomists do not do ergonomics; engineers do," said Peacock, a professional engineer and certified professional ergonomist. "Once they have this information, they realize that ergonomics provides a better, more productive way of working."

With GM pushing for a more proactive ergonomics effort, the laboratory is involved in the design of projects and systems. GM's new small-car project, which is in a start-up phase, is the first major test of the upfront approach, according to Ed Mohr, a corporate ergonomist in the lab. Mohr said the lab helped plants and divisions evaluate early product designs, as well as the best way to apply fixtures (by hand or with a tool) and what material handling devices could be installed. The lab also evaluates lift assists, lift tables and hand tools.

In a separate lab on the Warren site, engineer Les Langenderfer helps plants and division deal with current problems. Langenderfer describes the NAO Productivity Lab he manages as "a clearinghouse of solutions." One of his favorites is the use of Creform, a steel tubing material, to make everything from material handling carts and lift assists to entire adjustable assembly lines -- all of which can reduce ergonomic stressors. The lab provides training in how to assemble Creform kits. Langenderfer labels the material S.M.A.R.T. -- for Simple, Mobile, Adjustable, Reusable, Temporary.

In addition, the Productivity Lab displays and tests other innovations, such as plastic foam-like platforms for standing workers, tilted conveyors, and swivel seats for working inside vehicles.

Langenderfer urges plants to set up their own continuous improvement shops, in addition to having maintenance departments. So far, about 40 GM plants have done so. Some 75 plants are using Creform, Langenderfer said.

"This is GM, where normally you have to work through a lot of formal channels, and timing is important," he said. "Improvements with Creform and the foam can be done the next day. The plants can do them themselves."

Occupational Hazards, October 1996, page 107

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