Ergonomics: Are Automakers on the Right Track?

The Big Three automakers learned the hard way -- the OSHA way -- about ergonomics. Now, it is up to management and labor to keep the job improvement and injury prevention process on course.

The Big Three automakers learned the hard\nway -- the OSHA way -- about ergonomics. Now, it is up to\nmanagement and labor to keep the job improvement and injury\nprevention process on course.

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Ten years ago, Chrysler occupational health and\nsafety supervisor Bob Champion admits, he and his Belvidere (Ill.)\nAssembly Plant were "not far along" in addressing ergonomics. They\nhad begun to study the issue and conducted initial training, but did\nnot provide adjustable workstations or easy-to-use tools and had no\nstrategy for preventing cumulative trauma disorders (CTDs).\n

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Then, OSHA came in. In 1987, the federal agency\ncited Belvidere and Chrysler's Newark, Del., facility for alleged\nwillful recordkeeping violations, including failure to properly\nrecord back injuries and repetitive motion injuries. The next year,\nthe agency cited Belvidere for 13 alleged willful violations of the\nOSH Act's general duty clause for exposing employees to CTD hazards.\nIn 1989, OSHA, Chrysler Corp. and the United Auto Workers (UAW)\nagreed to a corporate-wide settlement that covered abatement of CTD\nrisk factors at Belvidere, Newark and three other Chrysler assembly\nplants.

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The result: Belvidere has made nearly 6,000\nergonomic improvements, with retrofitting alone costing $16 million.\nChanges include 6 1/2 miles of ergonomic matting, hundreds of assist\narms, 1,300 self-leveling shelves, and countless numbers of improved\nair guns and other tools. A 20-member labor-management ergonomics\ncommittee drives the process at Belvidere, which employs 3,800 hourly\nworkers in the manufacture of the Plymouth Neon.

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"We knew there were problems, but they were the\nway we did business," said Champion, who has been at Belvidere since\n1984. "OSHA forced us to solve a lot of things that we didn't think\nwe could solve. When you have to find a solution, you do, even if it\nmeans inventing the technology."

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By early 1991, OSHA had similar agreements with\nFord Motor Co. and General Motors Corp., thus securing ergonomic\ncommitments from one of the nation's largest industrial sectors. By\nmost accounts, working conditions dramatically improved as a\nresult.

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Now, however, the settlement agreements have\nall but expired and OSHA is struggling to justify attention to\nergonomics. CTDs are still a major problem, accounting for more than\n60 percent of the industry's injuries and illnesses, according to\nFrank Mirer, UAW director of health and safety.

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At press time, the UAW and the Big Three were\ninvolved in contract negotiations. The UAW's current three-year\ncontract with the companies was set to expire Sept. 14, but a strike\ndid not appear imminent. Sources said the negotiations and subsequent\nimplementation of new contracts may test management and labor's\nresolve to address ergonomics.

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Learning the Hard Way

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Virtually everyone in the 100-year-old U.S.\nauto industry -- more than 250 plants in all -- knows the\nword ergonomics and has felt its impact.

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As a result of the settlement at Belvidere, the\nChrysler plant went from having no formal ergonomics effort to\nimplementing a government-mandated program that included improved\nrecordkeeping, job analysis, hazard control, medical monitoring and\ntraining. In nine months following the settlement, Belvidere worked\nwith Humantech, an ergonomics consulting firm based in Ann Arbor,\nMich., to analyze every job in the plant for CTD risk factors.\nChrysler eventually spread its ergonomic process to all 47 U.S.\nfacilities.

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The settlement caused "a virtual revolution\nwithin Chrysler" and "changed the U.S. auto industry for the better,"\naccording to Franz Schneider, Humantech's founder and\npresident.

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Ford was the second automaker affected, after\nOSHA issued recordkeeping citations against Ford Electronics and\nRefrigeration Corp., Lansdale, Pa. The inspection was prompted by an\nemployee complaint about asbestos, but most of the alleged violations\nrelated to recordkeeping for CTDs.

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In its agreement with OSHA and the UAW, Ford\npledged to upgrade recordkeeping corporate-wide and accelerate\nimplementation of a comprehensive ergonomics program. The 1990\nagreement covered 38 facilities under federal OSHA jurisdiction, but\nFord implemented "Fitting Jobs to People: The UAW-Ford Ergonomics\nProcess" in all 60 production facilities nationwide, according to\nBrad Joseph, Ford's corporate ergonomist.

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Then, OSHA got to the nation's largest\nautomaker by citing its Inland Fisher Guide-Trenton (N.J.) and\nOklahoma City facilities for alleged recordkeeping and CTD-related\nviolations. In 1991, GM and the UAW signed the most stringent,\nfar-reaching of the three settlements, agreeing to implement an\nergonomics process at 72 plants covered by federal OSHA. Covered\nfacilities were separated into four blocks to determine deadlines for\ncompliance. GM applied the principles in all 150 U.S. plants,\naccording to corporate ergonomist Ed Mohr.

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The OSHA-GM-UAW agreement spelled out how to\nimplement each of five program elements: an ergonomics committee, job\nanalysis, hazard control, employee training and medical management.\nIt required that:

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  • Local committee members have at least 40\n hours of ergonomics training.\n \n
  • Plants conduct baseline and follow-up\n symptoms surveys.\n \n
  • Facilities use a checklist to evaluate all\n jobs for CTD risk factors.\n \n
  • Facilities implement corrective action as\n soon as possible and generally within six months, and then\n document these activities.\n

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OSHA's agreements with Chrysler and Ford have\nalready finished, and GM's is due to expire this fall.

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No Place for State Plans

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OSHA's corporate-wide settlement agreement\npolicy (CSA) calls on the agency to work with state plans to help\nfoster truly corporate-wide adoption. It did not happen in these\ncases, however.

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Federal OSHA and U.S. Department of Labor\nofficials negotiated the Big Three settlements without much input\nfrom the state plans, including Michigan, the home state of all three\ncompanies. Afterward, federal OSHA tried to get the states to buy in.\nOne OSHA source complained that the state plans "resoundingly\nrefused" to adopt the federal agreements or pursue similar\nsettlements.

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State plans did not want to sign onto\nagreements they had no control over, according to Doug Earle,\ndirector of the Michigan OSHA program (MIOSHA). Earle, who worked for\nfederal OSHA in its early days, said his state plan prefers to deal\nwith ergonomics through education and consultation, not enforcement\nof the general duty clause.

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There is no indication that OSHA had any grand\nplan to target ergonomics at the Big Three. Several sources, however,\nmarveled at the agency's ability to use limited inspections in\nfederal OSHA states (Illinois, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, as well as\nDelaware, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Wisconsin) to\nforce major changes in these large companies, even in plants covered\nby state plans.

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OSHA's experience with the auto industry is\n"one of the best examples of how OSHA can leverage its resources" to\nimpact numerous workplaces, according to Mike Connors, OSHA's deputy\nadministrator.

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OSHA's Follow-Up

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The CSA policy calls for monitoring inspections\nin at least 10 percent of covered facilities each year. The agency\ngenerally met this target by averaging about 6.5 inspections per year\nat GM, 4 per year at Ford, and 1 per year at Chrysler, according to\nOSHA's Directorate of Compliance Programs.

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During follow-up, OSHA issued failure-to-abate\ncitations against Ford and GM, but they were resolved and the\noriginal agreements remained in effect. When OSHA officials went back\nto Belvidere in 1992, they were impressed, according to Connors, the\nOSHA deputy administrator.

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"You could see real progress being made," said\nConnors, who was Region V administrator in Chicago before joining\nOSHA's national office earlier this year. "They pretty much revamped\nthe entire operation. They improved the jobs we identified and then\napplied the principles elsewhere."

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Connors said OSHA wishes it could have done\nmore follow-up inspections. Several OSHA sources complained that the\nagency relied too much on paperwork supplied by the companies to\ndetermine if progress was being made. It mostly consisted of tedious\nstatus reports on job improvement projects, not insight into how the\nprocess was being implemented or if it was reducing the incidence of\nCTDs.

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OSHA ergonomist Gary Orr said involvement by\nthe UAW, widely regarded as the nation's strongest union, allowed\nOSHA to do just a few monitoring inspections. "If there were two\nsides to a story," he said, "we would find out. The union was a good\ncheck and balance in this case."

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Humantech's Schneider said local unions and\ntheir safety and health/ergonomics representatives have been\n"persistent and unrelenting" in holding management to its ergonomics\npromises.

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But other sources said local unions were so\ninvolved in implementing the programs that they were just as likely\nas the companies to defend them to OSHA, no matter how effective they\nwere. One UAW safety representative at a Michigan GM plant\nacknowledged that it was "shame on us as much as management" if the\nprograms failed.

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OSHA generally let the companies and the UAW\nrun the programs.

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"OSHA left us alone [except for one small-scale\ninspection in 1991)," reported Joe Davis, ergonomics coordinator at\nGM's Lordstown (Ohio) car assembly plant, which employs 6,000\nworkers. "OSHA reinforced the idea for us that ergonomics is here to\nstay. We don't need the OSHA stick anymore. Ergonomics is a daily\npart of our business."

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Local Ergonomics

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In the auto industry, day-to-day ergonomics is\nthe job of safety and health, medical, engineering, production,\nmaintenance and the UAW. According to the UAW's Mirer, ergonomic\ncommittees are functioning in virtually all UAW-represented plants\nand meet biweekly or monthly. The committees typically have\nmanagement and labor co-chairs and equal representation.

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Full-time UAW ergonomics representatives and\nergonomics monitors do much of the job analysis work, according to\nGarry Felty, UAW health and safety representative at GM's Grand\nRapids, Mich., stamping plant. His plant, for example, had 23 months\nto evaluate some 1,700 jobs with a checklist or other analysis\ntechniques.

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Automakers rely on maintenance workers,\nengineers and skilled tradespeople to implement ergonomic\nimprovements. They can transform a facility from "the Flintstones to\nthe Jetsons," according to Dan Roehl, a UAW health and safety\nrepresentative at GM's truck and bus plant in Janesville, Wis.\n

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Among the changes are:

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  • Installing tilted parts bins, adjustable\n workstations and lift tables.\n \n
  • Purchasing or designing lift assists and\n other material handling devices.\n \n
  • Enforcing manual lifting limits, typically\n around 40 pounds.\n \n
  • Working with tool manufacturers to improve\n handle design and reduce torque and kickback from air guns.\n

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"We can solve most any problem at the plant\nlevel," said Marshall Bricker, Joe Davis' UAW counterpart at GM\nLordstown. Bricker believes ergonomic improvements should not take\nmore than six months to implement.

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Chrysler's Champion follows a continuous\nimprovement model. Belvidere, he said, is on its third- and\nfourth-generation lift assist devices for installing gas tanks and\nwheel rims, and its fifth generation of hand tools. On some jobs, he\nreported, the plant used as many as 13

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ergonomic fixes, and additional improvements\nmay be possible.

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Looking Ahead

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Perhaps no industry changes more over time than\nthe market-driven auto industry. As new products and processes come\non line, old problems can resurface and new ones can develop. Only\nrecently has the auto industry begun using the redesigns as\nopportunities to further enhance ergonomics.

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At Belvidere, for example, more than 1,500\nhourly operators worked with engineers and production experts for\nalmost two years to help design the Neon production system. Teams\nidentified nearly 300 existing problem jobs that could be improved\nwith the new car model. When Neon production began last year, the\nplant included such improvements as having doors off the cars during\ninterior work and work cells that can accommodate lift assist\ndevices.

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Chrysler used a similar upfront strategy when\nit built the new Jefferson North Assembly Plant (JNAP) in Detroit.\nWhen it opened Jan. 1, 1992, JNAP had hundreds of lift assist devices\nand a variable-height assembly line to reduce CTD risks. Despite\nbeing among the oldest workers -- around 50 years of\n

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age -- in the Chrysler system, JNAP\nworkers have one of the lowest CTD incidence rates. The facility\nbuilds about 1,000 Jeep Grand Cherokees per day.

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Ford has also used a "Design for Ergonomics"\napproach, according to corporate ergonomist Joseph. Its Cleveland\nEngine Plant No. 2, for example, reopened in April 1994 with\nstate-of-the-art material handling equipment, conveyors and ergonomic\nseating. Ergonomics committee members were involved in workplace\ndesign for two years prior to the beginning of production of the new\nDuratec engines. Many of the ideas came from the retrofitting\nexperiences of Engine Plant No. 1, which opened in 1951, and other\nFord facilities.

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General Motors' first major attempt at upfront\nergonomics is coming to fruition in the form of a new small-car\nproject, which is in a start-up phase. According to ergonomist Ed\nMohr, GM tried to address both product and process design. This\nincluded analyzing early product designs, production sequences, tools\nand fasteners, work cell layout and material handling needs.\n

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"This is our first real test of the proactive\nergonomics process," said Mohr, of GM's Manufacturing Ergonomics\nLaboratory. "This is how all of our new products and processes will\nbe designed. It is the best way to avoid plants having to put out\nfires all of the time."

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All three companies are trying to formalize a\nrole for ergonomics in new operating systems focused on product\ndurability, quality and performance. They are also testing virtual\nreality-type computer programs to evaluate future workplace\ndesigns.

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Sticking Points

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Despite agreement that ergonomics has benefited\nthe industry, there are still questions about its\nimplementation.

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Some industry sources complained that the\nprograms are driven and controlled by committees, particularly the\nUAW representatives. One Chrysler production manager told\nOccupational Hazards that his plant's committee has "much more power over\nergonomics and safety than I do." Union authority is so strong at GM\nthat some sources believe it threatens management's responsibility\nfor safety and health.

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Another concern is whether the automakers can\nmaintain interest in ergonomics now that the pressure from OSHA is\noff. "We've told the plants that OSHA is not the issue anymore,"\nFord's Joseph said. "The pressure's on [the committees and others\ninvolved in ergonomics] to keep things moving. That's not going to be\neasy. Without more resources, it will be tough to continually\nimprove."

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Labor-management negotiations have also created\ntension, beginning earlier this year with a 17-day strike at GM's\nDelphi Chassis Systems unit in Dayton, Ohio. As part of that\nsettlement, GM agreed to spend $6.5 million for ergonomic\nimprovements.

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In the ongoing national contract negotiations,\nwhich affect some 400,000 UAW-represented workers, the union is\npushing for more resources, greater involvement in job design and\nfaster implementation of ergonomic fixes.

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"The main thing that the [contract between the\nUAW and GM] needs to say is that ergonomics is here to stay," said\nLordstown's Bricker. "It is the best joint program they have ever\ncome up with. There's no turning back." Bricker is also concerned\nabout staffing levels. His assembly plant of 6,000 workers once had\neight ergonomics monitors. Now, it is down to two, even though the\nplant has three shifts.

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"On ergonomics, the companies and union are not\nfar apart," said Jim Taylor, a management official at the\nUAW-Chrysler National Training Center in Detroit. "Everybody has\nbenefited."

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Taylor said he would like to see additional\nergonomics language in the next contract, but he said automation and\njob rotation and enlargement should be included as viable options.\nRotation is already popular in plants with flexible modern operating\nagreements, such as Ford's Cleveland Engine Plant No. 2 and\nChrysler's JNAP. These ideas are not welcome on a national scale,\nsaid the UAW's Mirer.

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"We try to avoid automation whenever possible,"\nsaid Dwaine Modock, UAW ergonomics representative at Ford's Cleveland\nEngine Plant No. 1. "That puts people out of work. I would rather\nimprove the job so people can do it."

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Bricker said job rotation is "the biggest\nproblem" at GM Lordstown because it can negate the advantages of\nseniority. Sometimes, he said, management offers rotation as a\n"temporary solution," despite having no plans to improve a\njob.

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Consultant Schneider can find value in\nautomation, but he is no fan of job rotation in any industry. "What\nyou're saying is that you have a cup of poison and you're going to\ngive everybody a little sip," Schneider said. "Eventually, people\nwill start feeling the effects."

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Mirer says the leadership of the Big Three and\nthe UAW believes in the value of ergonomics. That does not mean that\nevery plant is performing well or that every worker makes use of the\nergonomic innovations provided.

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"The variation among plants is much greater\nthan the variation among the companies," Mirer said. "The difference\nis local management support. It also helps to have engineers who care\nabout people and can solve problems."

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Is It Working?

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One of the frustrating things about the\nautomakers' ergonomics experience is quantifying possible\nbenefits.

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Many plants report fewer lost workday back\ninjuries and carpal tunnel release surgeries, but others have seen\ntheir numbers rise in recent years. Nationally, the automakers record\nmore CTD-related injuries than any other industry. The auto industry\nhas the third-highest (and rising) CTD incidence

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rate -- 963.5 cases of repeated trauma\nper 10,000 workers.

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The automakers have seen benefits in\nproductivity, quality and morale, but they have not been able to\nquantify the effect and organize the data. Still, many auto industry\nexperts believe that ergonomics is benefiting both employee health\nand the companies' balance sheets. Last year, for example, the Big\nThree made more than $13 billion in profit, led by GM's record-high\n$6.9 billion in earnings. Ford made $4.1 billion and Chrysler made $2\nbillion.

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According to Cindy Roth, president of Ergonomic\nTechnologies Corp., an Oyster Bay, N.Y., ergonomics consulting firm\nthat has done work for several UAW-represented companies, including\nGM: "GM was forced to look at every single job, but it didn't go out\nof business. GM found lots of ways to improve, and the market\nrewarded it for that. Now, GM has record profits. That's a strong\ncase for ergonomics."

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Occupational Hazards, October 1996, page 96

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