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Safety Summit: Cooperation Leads to Injury Reduction

The dramatic workplace safety turnaround of General Motors' Saturn Assembly Plant in Wilmington, Del., turned heads at the recently held 3rd Annual Workplace Safety Summit.

The summit, held at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business Center for Business and Public Policy, is part of an effort to develop an effective and sustainable plan for reducing on-the-job accidents, injuries and deaths.

Phillip J. Franklin, M.D., M.P.H., plant medical director at the Wilmington Saturn Plant, told summit attendees about the dramatic turnaround in the safety program at the facility. The plant, in operation for over 55 years building such cars as the Chevette, Malibu, Corsica and Beretta, has "always had a high injury/illness OSHA recordable rate. In fact, we had one of the worst recordable injury rates among General Motors assembly plants," said Franklin.

He explained when he arrived here in 1999, the process was that when employees got injured on the job, the medical department saw them, assessed only their medical condition and gave them directions.

"The employee then gave the information to their foreman," remembered Franklin, "who grumbled that the stupid employee was trying to get off the job and the stupid medical department did not know what is going on. In short, we had no process or communication with the production staff and a very poor record of fixing the problem."

In June 2001, the whole process changed. Two UAW members, one with training in ergonomics and the other in safety, were added to the evaluation team. In addition, there was a commitment from the head of general assembly (where the car is assembled and the source of most injuries and accidents), his manpower coordinator and a process defined by the medical department based on injury /illness epidemiology. The process is that any and all employees who came to medical staff for treatment were interviewed by medical staff, the UAW accident team and an onsite analysis was performed to understand the root causes of the problem.

Sometimes the problem was ergonomics, psychosocial/behavioral, quality or truly medical in nature. The causes were defined, tracked and handled in a real time manner. Instead of taking days to weeks to deal with the issues, the issues were analyzed, processed and fixed sometimes in a matter of minutes to hours.

"It was a real eye opening process that not only fixed the issues, but also helped us to understand them," Franklin admitted. "It helped us to get ahead of the curve, to fix the problems once and for all, instead of a Band-Aid approach that 'fixed' the problem temporarily."

The improved process started showing a real value, not only to the employees, but to the production side of the business. Now that issues were being addressed in a real-time fashion, it freed up time to focus on other issues. It also improved communication between the medical staff, employees and production staff, and the union. The injury rate at the facility dropped from 19 to 3.5 per 100,000 man hours worked in less than a year. Comparing the two time periods of June 2000-2001 and June 2001-2002 (the intervention period), the facility reduced the number of first time occupational visits to the medical department by 800 and the number of visits by at least 25 percent.

Franklin said management discovered there was a problem with spikes in the injury incidents, learned to understand what caused them and to ameliorate the cause. "For instance, when we brought back employees for summertime relief," said Franklin, "we would do a background check of their medical problems and tried to assign them work that fit each employee, to avoid further injuring or aggravating their underlying disease process."

In total, the process helped to add value to the entire workforce in terms of fewer injuries and accidents, better use of time, and lower costs related to work slowdowns or stoppages and medical bills from injuries and accidents. Franklin says he estimates a savings of as much as $500,000 per year in medical and production costs.

The facility is now developing new tools to give management a better understanding of the causes and associations of injury and illness. GM hopes to use this data to help set up the new assembly lines for the next products, so "we can build a better car with fewer injuries to the workers. It is a win-win situation," Franlin told the summit.

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