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Managing Health: Don’t Call It a Comeback!*

July 1, 2011
Author James Mallon is a professional ergonomist, not an economist, but he’s taken a very keen interest in the economy and its indicators over the last 5 years.

I’ve been reading a lot about key manufacturing indicators for the United States and I’ve realized an important development. Please don’t make any major financial decisions based on my opinion, but after testing it with a few business leaders and some fellow consultants in the industry, I have received head nods from all. My feeling is that manufacturing will make its return to the United States.

And I’m not referring to just a recovery to pre-recession manufacturing levels, rather an increase. My reasoning is based on several economic indicators:

Adding to the economic factors listed above, some companies have endured a significant supply chain interruption over the past few months resulting from events in other countries, such as instability in Mexico, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia; natural disasters in Japan and South America; and building tension between India and Pakistan.

  • Based on findings from the Purchasing Manager’s Index (PMI), there is strong growth in the manufacturing industry. April’s data showed a PMI of 60.4. Any thing above 50.1 indicates growth. In fact, during the first quarter of 2011, the PMI was at its highest level since the spring of 2004.
  • American corporations have a lot of cash. It widely is reported that American company balance sheets have cash assets totaling $1 trillion.
  • Fuel prices are extremely high and have significantly increased shipping costs.
  • Wages in China are on the rise. Since 2005, Chinese workers have seen their paychecks increase by almost 69 per cent. They are expected to catch up to U.S. wages by 2015.
  • The U.S. dollar is weakening among all major currencies, making it cheaper to buy products produced in the United States and more expensive to import.
  • U.S. manufacturing production will out pace the overall economy; it is ex- pected to show a 6.2 percent increase in 2011 and a 4.2 percent increase in 2012.
  • The manufacturing sector is expected to see a hiring increase of 288,000 jobs in 2011 and 374,000 jobs in 2012.
  • As campaign machines get rolling for the next presidential election, there is mounting political tension over the slow economic recovery and unemploy ment numbers, which still hover around 9 percent.

As I write this article, the most recent economic numbers are being reported, and it appears that we are experiencing a recovery hiccup. Clearly, the impact of the Great Recession still is being felt and supply chain interruptions continue to have a negative influence, so some down months are to be expected. But even with the cyclical summer slowdown, the PMI should remain above 50.1 (growth).

But what does the United States offer? The answer is, “a lot.”

  • Our supply chain is less com plex, shorter and less risky than that of many other countries.
  • Operations and employees are not threatened by revolution or crime.
  • Our infrastructure is in place. It needs investment, not creation.
  • There are skilled workers who need work and are predicted to work well into their “golden years.”
  • We have access to the world and all its markets with minimal risk.
  • We have many consumers.

To further prove my point, Caterpillar is building a new plant in Texas; General Motors is investing $2 billion in its U.S. plants; GE is investing heavily in Louisville, Ky.; and Toyota is completing a new manufacturing facility outside Tupelo, Miss. So, what does this have to do with ergonomics?

Time to Examine Ergonomic Risks

If you believe that manufacturing is returning to the United States, the answer is simple: Start understanding the nature of ergonomic risk in your operations now. Once you understand the nature of the risks present in your current manufacturing facilities, develop plans to design them out. These design plans need to get into the right hands during the key meetings for manufacturing and product planning. To be effective, a robust process to identify all the risks and develop actionable items to address those risks is necessary.

Generally, ergonomic risks can be placed into one of the following two categories: design-induced risk (DIR) or process-induced risk (PIR). DIR risks are introduced to the workplace because of the design of the product itself, for example, an assembly point that forces the operator to use awkward neck, shoulder and arm postures. PIR risks are caused by tooling, equipment or material placement and design mismatches. Examples of this type of risk are part bins that have been delivered too low or too far away from the operator, causing them to extend their arms and/or bend at the waist to retrieve the parts.

Once these risks have been categorized, you can work with the appropriate engineering resources to design them out. This is an improvement process that will take time, and certain barriers – real and not-so-real – will be revealed. Despite the barriers, it is important to push through and persevere. Many of the world’s top manufacturers are investing in advanced ergonomic design processes too. Their engineers and designers are striving to understand ergonomic risk and the impact their decisions have downstream.

Remember, I’m an ergonomist, not an economist, and my forecast may not be accurate. But regardless of the state of manufacturing in the United States, understanding risk and designing it out before products go to full production makes sense. It is more efficient, more effective, and allows everyone to focus energy on continuous improvement rather than managing injuries and their associated costs.

*Titled with deference to the LL Cool J song, “Mama Said Knock You Out” (1990).

James Mallon, CPE, is a vice president with Humantech, which delivers practical solutions that impact safety, quality and productivity. Humantech believes people make productivity happen. For additional information, visit or call 734-663-6707. Mallon can be contacted directly at [email protected].

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