Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Chrysler Is Sold on Ergonomics

Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Chrysler Is Sold on Ergonomics

Article excerpt

DAN CATAU AND BILLY THOMPSON are masterful salesmen for Chrysler Corp., but they aren't trying to get you to buy a car. In the last four years, they have used a variety of hard- and soft-sell techniques to get what they want -- implementation of hundreds of ergonomic innovations at the Jefferson North Assembly Plant (JNAP) in Detroit.

Like many safety and health practitioners, they have been confronted by people who argue that ergonomic improvements are too expensive or get in the way of production, but they never let that stop them. Catau, Chrysler JNAP safety and health specialist, and Thompson, his United Auto Workers counterpart, offer multiple solutions and get work done in-house to save money. In the last four years, they have been involved in the expenditure of millions of dollars for ergonomic improvements.

The result: JNAP, which builds 1,000 Jeep Grand Cherokees per day, has the lowest cumulative trauma disorder rate, 3.03 per 100 full-time workers in 1993, of any Chrysler assembly plant, and has one of the lowest overall incidence rates in the automobile industry. And this has occurred, Catau pointed out, with the oldest workforce, averaging 49 years of age, in the Chrysler system.

"Management and labor are seeing the benefits now, but it wasn't always that way," said Catau, who is not one to take "No, wait until next year" or "If OSHA doesn't require it, why do it?" for an answer. "There were a lot of times we had to stick to our guns. We didn't always convince the people we had to. Sometimes, they agreed with us only because we said we wouldn't give the job a safety clearance. We weren't nasty, but we were firm."

"We were not very nice, but we did our jobs," Thompson added.


Catau and Thompson started their sales pitch early. In 1989-90, they were part of the engineering team that designed the manufacturing processes and assembly lines at the new 1.7 million-square-foot JNAP, built across the street from the old (and now demolished) Jefferson Assembly Plant (JAP).

Based on their experiences at the old JAP and their ergonomic training, Catau and Thompson identified 150 potential ergonomic problems, and improved all of them with variable-height assembly lines, lift assist devices, and other improvements before the plant opened Jan. 1, 1992.

When production began, an ergonomics committee and team leaders throughout the plant continued to seek out ergonomic opportunities. In 1993, they resolved all 65 ergonomic issues identified. At press time, 1994 figures showed 23 of 25 ergonomic issues identified had been resolved.

"We had a tremendous advantage by being able to start from scratch," Catau acknowledged. "We wanted to keep ergonomic problems out of the workplace, and we don't want people to have to wait forever to see problems resolved. Our goal is to make this the safest and healthiest plant in the world."

Catau said the most significant improvement was the design of the assembly line, which varies in height from one work cell to another to prevent excessive reaching, bending, and twisting. To help prevent awkward postures, the doors are removed during assembly inside the car and reunited with the vehicle toward the end of the line.

Catau estimated that JNAP has installed hundreds of lift assist devices to help in the manipulation and installation of the instrument panel, roof, battery, steering pump, radiator, trailer tow package, and spare tire. …

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