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Employees Exercise To Prevent Injuries

July 1, 1993
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Related Topics: Workers' Compensation, Health and Wellness, Featured Article, Compensation
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It's 6:25 in the morning. The sun's rays, just awakening, haven't yet chased the chill from the air. Inside the Subaru-Isuzu Automotive (SIA) plant in Lafayette, Indiana, however, the air is hot from the panting breath of workers. As the triumphant sound of the theme from Rocky blasts from speakers, the automotive workers touch their toes and twist their torsos, and swing their arms like windmills in the wind.

Twice a day for five minutes, associates (employees) are encouraged to perform stretching to music before their shifts. The stretching exercises are designed to harden workers for physical labor to keep work-related injuries—specifically strained muscles and repetitive-motion injuries—at a minimum.

The stretching program has been a part of the operations at the plant since production began in September 1989. A year earlier, SIA managers had visited the plant's parent companies in Japan. They discovered that a morning stretch to music was standard practice at all the car companies in that country. They brought the music back with them on tape.

SIA's management realized that the Japanese companies were onto something. Other car companies in the U.S., both domestic and Japanese-based, had confided in SIA that their workers were experiencing a large number of strained muscles and repetitive-motion injuries. The Bureau of Labor Statistics confirms this. According to the agency, workers in the automotive industry experience 9.6 lost workdays per 100 full-time workers. The national average for all industries is only 8.4.

Management at these other car companies had blamed the high accident rate on the need for loosening up or conditioning in preparation for the physical work. "They all wished that they had had something in place from the start" to control the situation, says Lee Ashton, personnel and training manager at SIA. So SIA put a conditioning program in place.

Employees work out before they work.
SIA's program ensures that production workers are prepared for physical labor before they hit the production line. It also prepares administrative and managerial personnel for repetitive-motion work, such as typing on computers. As part of all employees' orientations, the company teaches workers about work hardening, a name borrowed from gardening terminology. Just as gardeners gradually expose tender seedlings to the cold before leaving them out unprotected in the spring, so should employees prepare their bodies for work. By stretching and strengthening their muscles, workers run less risk of straining them on the job. "Our goal is to prevent injuries," says Mark Siwiec, manager of safety and environmental compliance at SIA. "If injuries do occur, however, they should be less severe."

The company's orientation for new hires lasts two weeks, or 80 hours. Of those 80 hours, 45 hours are devoted to physical training. During the employees' first week, physical training is minimal. The workers perform simple exercises (such as squeezing balls of putty to strengthen their arms and their grips), while sitting in a classroom, receiving instruction.

The second week of orientation is devoted completely to physical training, and workers receive a more comprehensive workout. An exercise physiologist leads them through low-impact aerobic exercises to improve their cardiovascular fitness. She teaches them how to stretch properly and how to use the workout machines that the company bought specifically for work hardening. The equipment is designed to strengthen specific parts of the body. For example, one machine contains a weighted device, which a worker must roll left and right to strengthen his or her forearms.

Although all employees go through the same orientation, they don't receive the same physical conditioning. It's much more intense for the production workers than for the administrative and managerial staffs. Production workers perform such additional exercises as:

  • Threading a clothesline through a chain to improve dexterity and hand-and-eye coordination
  • Twisting around a broom handle a rope that has a brick attached to it to strengthen the forearm and grip
  • Screwing nuts onto bolts buried in kitty litter to toughen fingertips.

In addition, the production workers receive physical training specific to their jobs. For example, one responsibility for a worker in SIA's trim and final area is putting wheels on vehicles. During the orientation period, the therapists take this employee to the trim and final area for several hours each day to work off-line performing this and other tasks. Here the therapists coach the employee on proper lifting, equipment moving and so on.

The company also requires this type of training for any employees who have been off work for eight weeks or longer, or who transfer into line positions that have physical requirements that are different from the requirements of their previous positions. These employees don't work in their positions for a full eight hours until two weeks after the transfer. The first day, they may work only two hours performing their jobs, and the rest of the time, they do other things to help the department. The amount of time they spend performing their jobs increases each day. An exercise physiologist and a physical therapist check with them consistently during this time to see if they're experiencing any soreness.

Workers stay in shape.
Once on the job, the employees are responsible for maintaining their own physical conditioning. The company doesn't abandon them in their efforts to remain fit, however. The morning stretching is available every day in each department for anyone who wants to participate. Although not mandatory, the company recommends it. The company consistently reminds the employees, through videos and newsletters, about the importance of physical conditioning.

In addition, the company maintains an on-site workout facility within its training center. The facility is available to all employees—administrative and managerial as well as production—from before the start of the first shift at 6:30 a.m. until after the second shift finishes work at 1:00 a.m. each day. The facility contains exercise machines, weightlifting machines and different kinds of strengthening devices. During new-employee orientation, the exercise physiologist teaches the new workers how to use this equipment.

Also, two physical therapists are readily available during working hours to help employees use the equipment or to help them tailor a program to fit their needs. For example, if an employee complains to a physical therapist of a sore back, the therapist teaches the employee stretching and strengthening exercises that are specific to the muscles that are creating problems for the employee. In addition, the therapist evaluates how the employee performs particular job functions to determine what's causing the problem and suggests less-straining methods.

The organization contracts for the therapists with an outside source to work on site full-time. Before it made this decision one year ago, it was paying for physical therapy at hospitals every time an employee became injured. "It was expensive—very expensive," Ashton says. "We talked with our insurance company, and it indicated that we probably could do this better, and maybe even save some money, if we just brought it in-house."

Ashton says that since the company has brought the therapists in-house, it absorbs the costs that ordinarily would be charged to workers' compensation insurance, saving itself 30% to 40% in administrative costs. Siwiec says that this decision has saved the company some intangible costs as well. Having the physical therapists and the equipment facility on-site, therapists can conduct rehabilitation therapy right at the plant. Injured employees spend less time away from their jobs, and the organization has more control over their treatment. Because the therapists know the jobs and the work processes, they can help the employees better than could an off-site therapist who isn't familiar with the specifics of the employees' jobs.

SIA also employs a full-time physician at the plant. "We made this decision for several reasons. When people get to know someone as an associate or co-worker, they trust him and are more willing to go to him with problems. Also, from a case-management standpoint, we wanted someone who could watch after the employees regularly to make sure that they get the best treatment. We wanted someone who knows our jobs and our people," Ashton says.

Results outweigh the costs.
Both Ashton and Siwiec say that they believe the work-hardening program is making a difference. "The people who end up getting injured many times aren't the ones doing the stretching exercises," says Ashton. He says that although it would be nice to be able to require everyone to exercise on a regular basis to eliminate this problem, the company has reservations about forcing regular exercise on employees, because exercising isn't a direct job-related duty. "We try to show people the benefits of exercising, but don't feel that we can mandate it."

It's tough to qualify the program empirically, however. Because the Indiana facility is only a little more than three years old, it hasn't established standards in every position yet and still is experiencing growth and change. "It has been difficult for us to have any type of stable period during which we could say concretely that it's making a difference," Ashton says. The work-hardening program has gone through changes during the four years of its existence.

In addition, because the program began when the plant did, there's no previous experience with which to compare it. Ashton also says that it's difficult to compare SIA's injury rates and severities with data from other plants because there are too many variables. For example, he says that at some companies, employees must work fast on short tasks for long periods of time. At SIA, employees experience a lot of job rotation and work on a variety of tasks.

Ashton, however, does estimate that having the work-hardening program on-site saves the firm approximately 30% to 40% on rehabilitation. In the long run, these savings outweigh the costs of the work-hardening program, which include only the salaries of the exercise physiologist and therapists, and the purchase price of the exercise equipment (between $20,000 and $30,000). The company houses the equipment in the same room as other training material, so there's no additional cost for space. There also are no costs involved with the morning stretching (except for the tape players).

In addition to the cost benefit, Ashton says that he's sure that the program affects employee morale. "We've received a lot of positive feedback from the associates who use the equipment or get advice from the doctor or the therapists. They're pretty positive about having the opportunity to do that."

Personnel Journal, July 1993, Vol. 72, No. 7, pp. 58-62.

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