Safety Regulations and the Employment of People with Disabilities in Automated Manufacturing Environments

Article excerpt

The disappointing level of unemployment among people with disabilities is a well known fact among vocational rehabilitation (VR) professionals. The National Health Interview Survey conducted from 1994 to 1995 revealed that 63% of people with disabilities were unemployed. When asked why, over half of the respondents stated that there were no appropriate jobs available (Loprest & Maag, 2001). One thing that has helped to spur the employment of people with disabilities is the use of computer based technology in the workplace (Anon, 1990; Lazzaro, 1986; Warren, 1984; Whitehouse, 1994). Today there are scores of assistive technology (AT) devices to help accommodate a variety of functional limitations related to computer access. As more and more companies find themselves with a computer on every desk, opportunities for employment of people with disabilities begin to increase.

Recent decades have witnessed a similar trend toward the use of computer-based equipment in manufacturing. Automated manufacturing technology (AMT), such as computer numeric controlled (CNC) machine systems, use computer-generated parameters to control the motion of tools in machining or assembly processes (Spear, 2001; Sun, 2000). Many AMT machines, such as the MasterCAM[R] compatible systems by CNC Software, Inc. (l) operate using a standard Windows[R] PC-based operating system (MacDonald, 2004).

This move towards automation allows more opportunities for people with disabilities to seek employment in manufacturing because of the potential for reducing the physical requirements of machining and assembly operations. People employed in the manufacturing field are now required to have a different set of skills than they once were; technical and computer skills are becoming more important (Barnet, 1993). Furthermore, the National Association of Manufacturers is predicting a manufacturing labor shortage of as many as 10 million skilled workers by the year 2010, due to the aging population coupled with limited success in demonstrating the benefits of a manufacturing vocation to the next generation of workers (Eisen, 2003).

Even though computer based technologies used with AMT may be similar in nature to those used in office environments, the tasks performed by the equipment operators and the environments in which they work are very different from the office environment. The potential for injury among production workers is significantly higher than the potential for injury among office or clerical workers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that in 2003 the incidence rate (2) for non-fatal injuries and illnesses was more than five times greater for manufacturing employees (6.8) than for employees of professional, scientific, and technical services (1.3) (USDoL-Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2004b). The total number of fatalities for manufacturing employees (420) was more than four times that of employees of professional, scientific, and technical services (97) (USDoL-Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2004a).

Risks in manufacturing environments exist in spite of the federal government's efforts to make workplaces safer through the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) of 1970. This act states that it is the responsibility of the employer to ensure a safe working environment for their employees. Gaining employment in a manufacturing environment therefore, provides challenges to people with disabilities over and above just having the ability to operate the necessary equipment or perform the necessary production tasks. The worker must be able to perform his or her job while protecting the safety of co-workers, as well as their own safety.

Furthermore, studies have shown that there is potential for discrimination against applicants with disabilities due to barriers in the employer's selection processes and due to negative stereotypes and myths about the abilities of people with functional limitations (Stone & Williams, 1997). …