Automaker Worker Safety Not as Good as its Cars

Automobile manufacturing (NAICS 336111) has been posting solid numbers for the last several years. According to the Auto Alliance, 2014 sales in the United States were “at an eight year high” with 7.7 million cars sold, continuing a five-year trend of increased sales. Optimism is high because “if deliveries in 2015 beat 2014, which they are forecast to do, it would be the first time in over eight decades on record that sales increased six straight years.” Good news for the economy. Good news for the automakers. Good news for the more than 114,000 workers in that industry. With an average 2013 wage in this sector of $82,959 and no end sight, what’s not to like?

The problem is that automotive worker injuries and illnesses have increased right along with sales and profits. The most recent data from BLS show that automobile manufacturing reported injury rates, lost work days, and OSHA penalties at or more than double the national average for the private sector. Auto quality and safety are increasing every year, as confirmed by sources ranging from Consumer Reports to Insurance Institute crash tests to our own personal experiences. There’s no doubt that cars today are safer and better made than ever in the history of the industry. There is also no doubt that autoworker safety has not enjoyed the same success. Costs to the industry are significant, and these injuries are not going away without serious effort.

The 2013 Total Recordable Case rate (TRC) of 7.6 per 100 workers for auto manufacturers (U.S. average was 3.3) tells us that 7.6% of their workforce suffered a recordable injury that year. Those injuries are all on OSHA 300 logs but don’t really tell the story of severity or cost. A look at the DART rate reflects the more serious and expensive injuries and illnesses. Automakers reported a collective 2013 DART rate of 3.9 versus a national average of 1.7 per 100 workers.

The 1,530 lost-time injuries included in this DART rate averaged $76,630 each, costing the industry a combined $117,244,000 and over 68,000 lost work days. That equates to $1,023 per employee across the entire auto manufacturing workforce.

Days away from work following an injury or illness are also strikingly high for this group, with nearly 58% of workers off the job for 31 or more days following a DART injury. The national average for all private sector cases is 29%.

Who is getting hurt and how? Analysis of BLS data shows that the most frequently injured autoworker is a 45-54 year-old male with more than five years on the job. He most commonly sprains a shoulder or hand from overexertion while handling or moving parts and materials, often associated with falls onto floors.

In the last five years, state and federal OSHA conducted 283 inspections of automobile manufacturers. In 2013 the most common federal citations to automakers were for noise exposure, Hazard Communication (HazCom), LOTO, electrical safety, machine guarding, and respiratory protection. Facilities averaged 3.7 citations (higher than typical) and $16,168 in penalties per inspection (nearly triple the national average).

One might ask how much this is costing car buyers. Profits in this industry can vary wildly, but based on the typical five percent in recent years automakers needed to sell an additional $2.3 billion to cover those losses. With sales exceeding $108 billion in 2012, another $2.3 billion might not seem like much to ask of the salesforce and the American consumers, but with around 7.6 million cars sold in 2013, the cost per vehicle to make up the loss was $309. So at an average new car cost of just over $30,000, the “injury cost recovery fee” turns out to be about 1% of the sticker price.

Everything you just read is based on a huge amount of data, but all of it amounts to lagging indicators with no real insights on how or why this is happening. It would be simple to say these manufacturers need ergonomics training and programs, but they already have them. Despite years of ergonomics, automation, and standardization in this industry, something upstream is happening (or failing to happen) that is driving these poor outcomes. What is it? “It” has to be identified and understood to allow prevention of future injuries.

A good examination and understanding of causal factors must involve everyone in the workforce. These types and numbers of injuries do not happen without warning signs, and leading indicators such as near misses and observations are your best chance to improve the process and prevent injuries and illnesses.

Measure and track everything you can through a formal incident management system (IMS) that promotes early reporting and intervention. Electronic and mobile systems are preferred. Be proactive and use your IMS to capture and investigate observations and near misses with the same resolve as if they were injuries, because they almost were and eventually will be.

No one wants to see an “injury cost recovery fee” on the sticker of anything, but the cost is built into the price of every product we buy and use. Safety done right always pays. If you don’t believe it, consider the cost of being unsafe. In this case, it’s about 1% of the price of that mid-size sedan you’re looking at this weekend.

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