Working Pain-Free

Kimberly-Clark Employee Maintenance Centers help to reduce incident rates at manufacturing plants, which boosts productivity and the bottom line.

Kimberly-Clark’s Conway, Ark., plant reduced its musculoskeletal incidents by 50 percent following installation of an on-site Employee Maintenance Center (EMC). Improvements in reportable incident rates have continued each year since the EMC launched in 2004.

At a sister plant 20 miles down the road in Maumelle, reportable incidents fell from eight to zero in the year following the launch of its center. “That’s the most important thing I can tell you about the center: eight to zero, in just one year,” said Clara Chase, Kimberly-Clark’s occupational health nurse based in the Maumelle plant.

“The center” is the Employee Maintenance Center, created and operated by InjuryFree, Inc. of Woodinville, Wash. It’s one of four operating EMCs in Kimberly- Clark plants in Washington state and Arkansas.

The oldest EMC has been operating at an Everett, Wash., plant since 2000. A typical EMC is an on-site conditioning, therapy, and prevention center designed not only to fix the aches and pains common to manufacturing workers, but also to prevent injuries from occurring in the first place. Of particular concern are injuries related to repetitive motion and the overstress of particular muscle groups and joints.

The center is staffed with licensed physical therapists, certified athletic trainers, and other professionals whose focus is keeping workers working painfree. “Don’t confuse this with a typical wellness center perk,” said InjuryFree CEO Trent Shuford. The center’s job is to help company management keep employees on the job, working productively and pain-free, he explained.

To accomplish that, the center’s facilities are filled with specialized machines that measure joint strength and the strength of specific muscle groups. When an employee doesn’t have the strength or flexibility necessary to perform a specific job task without pain or risk of injury, the EMC staff assigns the worker an individualized strengthening and/or flexibility regimen. Once the required strength or flexibility level is reached, a maintenance plan goes into effect.

According to Shuford, the key lies in understanding the strength and flexibility required for a specific job task. He says that when the EMC is doing its job well, little problems are identified and fixed before they turn into costly worker’s comp claims. That keeps the employees working without pain, increases overall productivity, and significantly reduces medical costs and comp claims.

Proximity, Access are Keys
At the Conway personal care facility, the EMC treats more than 30 percent of the plant’s workers each month, according to data collected by InjuryFree staff. Nearly 60 percent of the plant’s employees will make an appointment for treatment during the course of a year. Since its inception in 2004, more than 85 percent of the plant’s employees have accessed the Conway EMC.

They’re able to get that level of participation in large part because of the center’s proximity to the workers. Employees schedule appointments during breaks and make use of their 15 minutes for stretching instruction, intense therapy, and even strengthening exercises.

Michael Gibby, a mechanic at the Conway plant, is a typical example. Gibby started coming to the EMC about a year after the center opened. He has had chronic back pain following back surgery in 1998. During the ensuing years, back pain would flair up on the job and during other activities. Gibby put up with the pain because he didn’t want to miss work going to the doctor. He admitted that the pain sometimes affected his productivity. “I wasn’t always firing on all eight cylinders,” he said.

After finally checking out the EMC, Gibby was put on a rigorous back strengthening program. Using the center’s specialized equipment, the EMC staffers helped Gibby strengthen his back so he can do his work without constant pain—and without another back surgery.

Gibby said if the EMC weren’t on site at the plant, he would have continued to put up with the pain. He believes he wouldn’t have taken the time to see a doctor.

In addition to proximity, access is crucial for the program to be successful. Some workers in the Conway plant are on 12-hour shifts. To meet the needs of those employees, the center remains open until 10 p.m.

Some people may make an appointment only once in a year or even less frequently, according to InjuryFree Regional Manager Kelly O’Malley. But some employees need regular attention and a consistent training program to avoid injury because of a history of chronic pain or old injuries. Treatment helps the employees with their work and also with the rest of their lives, O’Malley explained. She and her staff get obvious satisfaction from the positive impact they have on peoples’ lives.

How the Partnership Began
Kimberly-Clark’s Everett plant was experiencing higher-than-acceptable injury rates from repetitive motion injuries, back injuries, and the strains and sprains that normally occur in plants where physical work is part of the day-to-day routine. Escalating worker’s compensation costs and the expenses of related medical procedures had reached the point where Everett Plant Manager Dave Faddis was willing to experiment with a new approach to treating employee injuries.

Faddis launched a carefully controlled pilot program with InjuryFree in the fall of 2000. That program’s success caused the pilot to expand into a full-blown on-site center. Shuford believes the plant saved several hundred thousand dollars in worker’s comp and related expenses the first full year of the new center’s operations. While K-C won’t share financial data, it added a second EMC at the other end of the sprawling Everett plant to give more employees better access to EMC services.

With the success of the EMC concept proven, Faddis encouraged the installation of an InjuryFree EMC in the Conway plant in 2004, and a year after that the Maumelle facility added its center.

Many of the referrals to the EMC come from Clara Chase and the other OHNs on staff. They are typically the first to be informed of a hitch in somebody’s back or a joint or limb problem. Typically, the aches, pains, and minor injuries are workrelated. Sometimes, though, they can be the result of skiing, golf, or working around the house. It doesn’t matter to the EMC team; anything that impairs an employee’s ability to perform job tasks at an optimal level is something they’ll address. Likewise, because the EMC is a fixed expense for Kimberly-Clark, plant management encourages its employees to take full advantage of the center.

Chase is a real fan of the EMC. As the occupational health nurse at the Maumelle plant, her responsibility is to assess the issue, diagnose, and prescribe action. “When the ice and anti-inflammatories don’t work, I refer them to InjuryFree,” she said.

Safety, OHN, EMC Triangle
Chase sees the EMC as part of a complementary triangle that includes OHNs, who are part of HR in the Kimberly-Clark world, the safety department, and the center. They all work together to reduce injuries and keep employees at their most productive levels.

Occasionally, several employees will show up at the EMC complaining of pain that resulted from the same manufacturing process. When that occurs, the InjuryFree staff will meet with Kimberly-Clark’s safety personnel to attempt to identify the problem at the source. The trust that employees have for the EMC staff is so great that they are very open with them and appear to be unafraid to share their safety and health concerns. This, in turn, allows the EMC staff to engage Kimberly-Clark safety personnel when appropriate. It’s a win-win solution when factory management learns early on about potential problems with machinery or processes. In addition, Safety Manager Don Vowell conducts quarterly meetings to make sure communication and coordination are occurring.

Part of the open communication is attributable to the EMC’s independence. Kimberly-Clark personnel know the center is operated by a separate company and that they can say anything with complete safety and confidentiality. According to John Pownall, Conway’s plant manager, the communication between the EMC providers and K-C employees is very open. “The third-party relationship does help in the trust equation, there’s no doubt,” he said.

Economic Value
Pownall said Conway’s plant management was disappointed with its incident rate in 2004. That disappointment was the catalyst for the installation of the EMC.

Today, the Conway plant’s safety performance continues to improve, and InjuryFree plays a significant role in that improvement process. Moreover, the improvement has translated directly into fewer worker’s comp claims.

Pownall said that, while he believes the center pays for itself and then some, it’s difficult to document hard data to prove that. He sees InjuryFree as one important component of an overall safety program. He believes utilization is the best measure of the center’s effectiveness. In the last quarter reviewed by management, fully 38 percent of the Conway plant’s employees used the center.

“Oh, I love it. InjuryFree keeps me going,” said Judy Garrett, who began her job at the K-C plant in February 2007. She had previously injured herself on the job at a different company and has had back pain ever since. After beginning work at K-C, she thought that she would have to quit because of the pain she was experiencing. She had seen the EMC during her new-employee orientation and decided to give it a try. “These (EMC) people do wonders,” Garrett said. “I go home at night and my husband goes on and on about his aches and pains from his job. I just smile. He says, ‘You got a treatment today, didn’t you?’ I just nod and smile. He’s so jealous. The place he works doesn’t have anything like InjuryFree.”

Making a Difference
Pownall acknowledges that it’s impossible to avoid all of life’s aches and pains and that injuries can occur in manufacturing plants. But a plant can take measures to significantly reduce many of the back, muscle, and joint injuries that so often turn into worker’s comp claims if ignored for too long.

Safety Manager Vowell explained that when somebody goes to the doctor because it hurts to lift his arm, the doctor might tell him, “Don’t lift your arm for two weeks.” When he doesn’t lift the arm for two weeks, it feels better—but the next time he lifts that arm, it hurts again. Kimberly- Clark’s and InjuryFree’s shared objective is to get that employee to the point where he can lift the arm and it doesn’t hurt.

The most important thing InjuryFree does is make an impact on the lives of Kimberly-Clark employees, Pownall said. “It’s evident they make a difference,” he added.

This article originally appeared in the January 2008 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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