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A commitment to ergonomics has not only dramatically reduced workers compensation costs and lost-time injuries at Navistar International Transportation Corp.'s assembly plant in Springfield, Ohio, but also is helping workers do their jobs better.

Navistar officials say the ergonomics program led to a 60% drop in workers comp costs at the plant-Navistar's largest-to $544,000 in 1996 from $1.4 million in 1993.

At the same time, however, it has contributed to productivity, quality and employee morale gains as well.

Much of the program's success is due to its comprehensive team-oriented approach, based on a labor/management partnership and coordinating the plant's safety, medical and benefits departments in order to best identify and resolve ergonomics issues.

In some cases, the solutions have involved the installation of hoists or articulating arms to help workers lift heavy pieces or help them position them on the assembly line.

Other times it's as simple as changing the way a job is done or raising a tray of parts by stacking pallets underneath it so that the worker placing those parts on the heavy- and medium-duty trucks and school buses built at the plant doesn't have to bend repeatedly.

"We usually average about 20 engineering changes a year," said Alisha Hensley, ergonomist/safety supervisor at the Springfield Assembly Plant. She noted that only about 10% of the jobs studied in Springfield annually for ergonomics issues ultimately require spending money to effect a change.

"Alisha works really well with the departments to get them to do things that don't require money," said Tim W. McDaniel, environmental health and safety manager at the Springfield Assembly Plant.

The Springfield program reflects a corporatewide commitment, company officials say. "We find it makes our workers perform better. It fits in with doing it right the first time. It fits in with trying to increase productivity in the workplace," said Dr. William B. Bunn, medical director, health management and safety for Navistar International Corp. in Chicago.

"The way we see the program at Navistar, we like to think they're proactive and preventive programs No. 1, and second, as we look at ergonomics programs, we like to think they're things that make work easier," he said. "I think that's the emphasis of our program. It's a commitment to do things in the correct fashion, and ergonomics is part of that puzzle."

One of five ergonomics programs examined in a study released in August by the federal General Accounting Office, the ergonomics program at Navistar's Springfield Assembly Plant began in 1984 as part of the terms of a collective bargaining agreement with the United Auto Workers.

The company hired its first ergonomist at the site in 1991, with the program taking its current shape in 1994 when Ms. Hensley arrived.

Unlike Ms. Hensley, the first ergonomist worked out of the plant's engineering department. Experience showed that other engineering demands diverted that person's attention from ergonomics issues, however.

"It's just going to depend on how an engineering department runs it," Mr. McDaniel said. "But the temptation is always there in an engineering department to do other hot projects as they come up."

As a member of the safety department, Ms. Hensley said she can devote her attentions to ergonomics without other demands on her time. That's to her advantage, because the nature of the work at the Springfield plant creates a host of ergonomic challenges.

"When you have any type of manually intensive work, there's more of a need," Ms. Hensley said.

"We have a lot of the problems that any assembly operation would have," said Mr. McDaniel. "The thing is a lot of the pieces here are bigger."

Another factor that has highlighted ergonomics issues at Navistar in recent years is an increasingly diverse workforce. After the company closed its agricultural operations in the late 1970s and early 1980s, for many years Navistar was able to hire from a largely male pool of laid-off workers.

Mr. McDaniel said, "1994 was the first time we hired off the street, and 40% of them were women."

"Now we had 5-foot-3 or 5-foot-4 women on the job and a lot of the (jobs) went from physically difficult to physically impossible. And that diversity of the workforce speeded up what we were doing."

Walking the plant floor, Ms. Hensley points to various tasks along the line where hoists were installed, for example, to help women do the job.

A hoist was installed to lift steering gears into place, for example, after a woman took the job. Elsewhere on the line, a woman uses a hoist to lift a 120-pound brake assembly. In the latter case, the change had an obvious productivity benefit, turning a two-person task into a one-person job.

Such changes don't just benefit the women on the shop floor, she noted. "Just because you can lift something doesn't mean you should," she said.

"I'm really proud of this place and how far it's come," Ms. Hensley said. "This place was designed for a 6-foot, 200-pound farm boy, because they could be selective in who they hire. Now they can't."

In reshaping the workplace to accommodate that newly diverse workforce, Navistar benefits from a team approach to the task that manifests itself in several ways.

One is labor/management partnership on the issue, with the ergonomics program benefiting both from the commitment of top corporate management and the involvement of the union in identifying problems and crafting solutions.

"We've had money set aside each year for ergonomics," said Patrick J. Phillips, accounting manager at the Springfield Assembly Plant. "Each year when we go through the capital plan they determine what are the top ergonomic issues, safety issues, legislative issues, and we include that in the capital plan and the corporation as a whole provides for that."

The workers on the line, meanwhile, play their own part, Mr. Phillips noted.

"A lot of the ideas they're coming up with aren't expensive ideas," he said. "They're things that are simple in nature and you wonder why you haven't done it. So the people on the shop floor are very instrumental in coming up with things."

"And that's the only way that I can do my job," Ms. Hensley said. "I'm just one person. They come up with these incredible ideas."

According to Steve Reed, the UAW's ergonomist at the Springfield plants, the partnership has been critical to the program's success.

"That's the reason it works. That's the reason it got off to a good start and we haven't had many stumbling blocks as we move right along."

"When we first started, the people on the floor were very suspicious of us: 'What are you doing here?' 'Why are you looking at my job?'*" Mr. Reed recalled. "But as a union representative, when I was out there with (the company's ergonomist) and we started talking to an employee about his job, they saw there was union representation and they would talk to me."

As the program became established, workers on the line became more receptive. "You have to show them that the change is good, and you have to educate them," Mr. Reed said.

Today the workers on the floor recognize that the ideas they provide produce a "win-win situation," Mr. Phillips said, affecting both safety and the bottom line.

Whenever workers, supervisors or the plant's medical director suspect an ergonomic hazard may be present in a job, they can submit a "Request for Ergonomic Study" form identifying the concern, the various risk factors involved, the area of the body affected by the task and suggestions for correcting the problem.

Ms. Hensley or the UAW's ergonomist then forms a committee to study the job and develop appropriate controls. The result is that the affected workers realize that any decision to change the way they do their job was reached with them, rather than for them, Ms. Hensley said.

Every request is examined, although those jobs on which an injury has already occurred are given top priority. All study requests are logged and tracked on a database.

"When we have a problem or something that might be a problem, I just call (Ms. Hensley) and she sends somebody or she's here," said Dave Nash, safety deputy in Department 52 on the plant floor.

Not every problem has an easy solution, though, Ms. Hensley said. "Some of these stump you," she said. In those cases they might put together a team to examine the problem or bring in a consultant. And some have no practical solution.

"You can't fix everything," the ergonomist said. "Some of these are just too expensive. This is a big plant that makes big things with big tools. It took me a long-time to let go of the fact that I can't fix them all. But I do keep track of them all."

Ms. Hensley noted that jobs that are especially difficult to perform or that are the most ergonomically challenging often result in the most customer warranty claims or the most assembly line downtime.

She also makes use of a benefits department database that tracks workers comp cases to identify ergonomic hazards or justify expenditures associated with correcting them.

For example, to justify lift tables that rise automatically and reduce workers' need to bend and reach, she used the database to show that the devices can reduce shoulder and back injuries that were costing the plant more than $200,000 per year in workers comp costs.

It's one more example of the team concept, here joining safety with the benefits and medical departments.

"The system we use for claims management is also the system we use to track safety," said Tammie J. Seymour, administrator of employee benefit plans for Navistar's Springfield plants.

The data shows the ergonomics program's impact in many ways, Ms. Seymour said. Among other things, it shows that costs associated with musculoskeletal injuries have dropped an average of 10% to 14% yearly for the past three or four years, she said.

"We sit down every week with safety, medical and myself and review each alleged claim," she said.

Together they can identify problem jobs or determine areas where workers need to be trained to avoid injury.

"Education is a big piece of this," said Dr. Robin S. Baver, medical director of the Springfield plants. "And sometimes if you can explain why instead of just 'Do it,' that can kind of help."

It's also essential that training include supervisors, Ms. Hensley said. "The supervisors are kind of the unsung heroes of a manufacturing environment," she said. "A lot of times they're doing things I don't even know about. So it's really important that when you do your training, you train your supervisors."

Many of the ergonomic fixes to date at Navistar's Springfield Assembly Plant have involved lifting. An articulating arm is available to help assembly line workers lift bench seats into place in truck cabs, for example. A similar arm and hoist helps workers lift and position prop shafts so they can be attached to the transmission.

"To me, the first step when you start an ergonomics program is to go through the whole plant and get your lifting issues out of the way," Ms. Hensley said. "It takes about three years before you can stop firefighting and start being proactive."

Having been on the job at the Springfield Assembly Plant now for 31/2 years, Ms. Hensley is moving the ergonomics program in that direction.

"We're at a point where we're trying to be proactive," she said. "We've been reactive for a long time."

Among other things, the company is in the process of bringing onsite physical therapy and onsite rehabilitation to the Springfield facility, hoping to gain even greater insight into the physical components of jobs and how to prevent injury.

One goal is to have the therapist use the assembly plant's onsite fitness center not only to help injured workers rehabilitate themselves but also to keep themselves in shape for the job and help new workers prepare themselves physically for the tasks they face.

"If you're injured and you're going through our industrial rehab and physical therapy, the goal is let's keep you in shape and keep you healthy," Ms. Hensley said. "We're not in shape right now to do these jobs. Neither are the people we're bringing in, and that's why they're getting injuries.'