By LaBar, Gregg
Occupational Hazards , Vol. 51, No. 5
EMPLOYEE INVOLVEMENT YIELDS IMPROVED SAFETY RECORD
In 1982, the Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. factory in La Vergne, Tenn., was faced with declining production and employment numbers, and was planning to close in early 1983. The plant had been "shrinking," according to Bob McArthur, who at the time was Firestone's production department manager. On the increase, unfortunately, was the injury incidence rate, up to 11.8 per 200,000 work hours for 1982. Enter Bridgestone Corp., Japan's largest tiremaker, which bought the La Vergne plant from Firestone on January 10, 1983.
The La Vergne plant was only one stop on Tokyo-based Bridgestone's acquisition trail. In 1984, Bridgestone purchased the rest of Firestone's tire business. In 1986, Bridgestone combined its U.S. manufacturing and marketing subsidiaries into Bridgestone (U.S.A.), Inc. Initially based in Torrance, Calif., Bridgestone (U.S.A.) moved last year to Nashville, Tenn., some 15 miles from the La Vergne facility.
Immediately after buying the La Vergne plant, Bridgestone began the task of reviving the ailing facility. The company had two primary goals in mind -- improve communications in the plant and prepare for expansion.
First, the company made it a policy to listen to employees. To facilitate communication with workers, quality circles were instituted in July 1984. The quality circles, renamed Employee Involvement Groups (EIG's) last year, have yielded remarkable results in the areas of production, quality, and especially safety, according to company and union officials.
In part because of improvements made or suggested by employees, the plant experienced a fivefold decline in its injury incidence rate over a 5-year period, to a low of 2.2 per 200,000 work hours in 1986. Compare that record with 1986 Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates which show an incident rate of 10.2 for manufacturers in the "motor vehicles and equipment" category and a rate of 11.0 for all manufacturers of durable goods.
McArthur, now the Bridgestone plant's safety director, says he continues to be satisfied with the plant's safety performance, despite injury rates that increased to 2.6 in 1988. This increase can be explained, he says, by considering that new, more inexperienced people were added to the work force and that the requirements for reporting injuries have become more stringent.
Bridgestone also spent $400 million to renovate the La Vergne plant and expand production to include passenger tires, which it started making last year. After turning out less than 1,000 radial truck tires a day in late 1982, the plant now makes about 4,000 truck tires and 3,700 passenger tires per day.
As a result of the expansion, the plant, currently Bridgestone's only production facility in the United States, needed additional workers. From a low of 250 production workers in late 1982, the plant has rebounded to employ a total of 1,374 employees -- 985 in production and 389 in administrative and supervisory positions (including 40 Japanese advisers). An additional 215 maintenance jobs are contracted out. In light of the growth at the former Firestone plant, Bridgestone has announced it will build a new production facility 60 miles southeast of La Vergne.
Why has Bridgestone's participative management style proved so successful? How has the quality circle concept contributed to a greatly improved safety record? To find out, we talked to three people who have worked for both Firestone and Bridgestone: McArthur, Bridgestone's director of safety, security, and environmental affairs; Jim Ragland, the Bridgestone plant's employee involvement coordinator; and Mark Ayers, safety and health representative for United Rubber Workers (URW) Local 1055.
Transplanting an idea
In the post-World War II era, Bridgestone was one of many Japanese companies to buy in to the quality control concepts of W. …