An Ergonomics Turnaround

A matrix to schedule workstations for employees returning from lost time accidents cut ZFI-Tuscaloosa's comp costs and recordables.

WITHOUT a doubt, highly trained people and corporate dedication to safety are the key elements of any good ergonomic program in industry. However, sometimes producing award-winning results in ergonomics can be helped along by a simple case of serendipity.

Take the case of ZF Industries in Tuscaloosa, Ala. German-based ZF Friedrichshafen AG (ZFI) opened its first U.S. facility in 1986, manufacturing manual transmissions for Ford Motor Company. In 1996, the company began operations in Tuscaloosa to provide front and rear axles for the then-new Mercedes Benz (MBUSI) plant in nearby Vance, Ala.

Early on, the employees on ZFI's two production lines began to have major musculoskeletal problems, ranging from rotator cuff injuries to carpal tunnel. ZFI's OSHA incidence rates rose to an alarmingly high rate, nearly six times the national average (this is a rating devised by multiplying the number of OSHA recordable incidences by 200,000, then dividing by the total number of hours worked).

With worker's compensation costs soaring, management finally said, ENOUGH. Enter serendipity at its finest.

The ZFI plant comptroller at the time, Howard Broadfoot, had been a college friend at the University of North Alabama of Michael Morris, who was working at the time with the Alabama Technology Network, a non-profit organization of the University of Alabama. Morris was called in to look at ZFI's production lines and subsequently hired as safety manager for the plant. Though we had never met, Michael, via the Alabama Technology Network, knew something about our work with other manufacturing plants in the automotive industry. Initially, we were hired through the Alabama Technology Network and began assessing risk in the various workstations of the plant. Dr. Peter Casten, a Tuscaloosa-based physician who worked with a number of Alabama manufacturing companies, including ZFI, became another key player in ZFI's success story.

The Plant's Transformation
After an extensive analysis of the jobs and lost time injuries at ZFI, we developed a Body Parts Stress Index (BPSI). The BPSI was implemented to schedule workstations for employees returning from lost time accidents--most of these workers were patients of Dr. Casten. Initially skeptical of the BPSI, Dr. Casten became a staunch supporter of the matrix and presented a paper on its use at a recent Applied Ergonomics Conference.

When fate finally put all the pieces of the puzzle together, ZFI was transformed from an ergonomic black sheep to a shining star. Through the dedication and hard work of Michael Morris, who is now human resources Manager at ZFI's Tuscaloosa plant, and the support of management and employees, the company consistently has an OSHA rating well below the industry average for its Standard Industrial Classification. The number of recorded injuries has dropped by more than 50 percent and worker's compensation costs dropped to less than $100,000 per year.

These dramatic results were recognized by the automotive industry with presentation of the prestigious PACE Award to ZFI. Sponsored by Automotive News Magazine and Cap, Gemini, Ernst & Young, the Premier Automotive Suppliers Contributions to Excellence (PACE) Award is presented annually to companies showing innovation and leadership in the workplace.

Achieving excellence is one thing, but maintaining it is quite another story. For ZFI, ergonomics has become a way of life. In accepting the PACE Award, Michael Morris stated, "You can never lose money by implementing ergonomic standards, you always come out in the black." ZFI lives by those words. New plant manager Ron Davis has continued the work begun by our team and is a staunch proponent of science-based ergonomic programs.

Auburn Engineers continues to evaluate each workstation at ZFI on an annual basis, providing BPSI numbers for continual fine-tuning of the program. Kim Kimbrell, who replaced Morris as safety director at ZFI, was one of the first five employees hired at the ZFI Tuscaloosa plant back in 1996, and he remembers all too vividly how bad things were before the ergonomics program was implemented. "More important than the money we save using BPSI and other ergonomic standards is the safety and well-being of our employees. And we don't want to go back to the way it used to be," he noted during a recent visit to the plant.

So, serendipity brought all the players together--and maybe keeps us together. The combination of good luck, hard work, and creative thinking seems to solve most human performance problems in the workplace.

This article originally appeared in the September 2004 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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