Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Ergonomics: The Mazda Way

Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Ergonomics: The Mazda Way

Article excerpt


In recent years, many manufacturers and their employees have become painfully aware of the ergonomic hazards posed by some assembly line processes. Improperly designed workstations, lines that move too fast, and ergonomically unsound work procedures can lead to such problems as carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) and back injuries.

As Sarah Griffin, a physical therapist who works at Mazda Motor Mfg. (USA) Corp.'s (MMUC) Flat Rock site, notes, "The most efficient way of production is for each person to do the same thing over and over. But that's the worst thing for humans."

With this in mind, Mazda's safety and health team has made the reduction of ergonomic hazards a priority at the Flat Rock plant. The facility, which makes the Mazda MX-6, Mazda 626 sedan, and Ford Probe, hopes to show that maintaining a strong interest in ergonomics and producing 240,000 vehicles annually are compatible goals.

`From the Beginning'

Mazda's effort to improve the ergonomics of car manufacturing began in May 1985, with the start of construction on the Flat Rock facility southwest of Detroit. In designing the plant, Mazda's only one in the U.S., engineers had a luxury that they would not have enjoyed with an existing manufacturing facility: They were starting from scratch and thus had access to new technology that took into account the latest information on ergonomics.

"From the very beginning, ergonomics was a concern and was accepted as a legitimate safety issue," says Penny Morey, the plant's director of health, safety, training, and security.

For example, Mazda installed a tilt line in the trim and final shop to allow employees to work underneath cars without having to bend down, crawl into pits, or stretch their arms. The 30-degree angle of the tilt "brings the car to the person, instead of the other way around," explains safety and health specialist Joe Galusha, who coordinates the plant's ergonomics program.

To further reduce awkward bending and reaching motions, Mazda's overhead conveyor line was designed to move at different heights along the assembly process, depending on which part of the car is being worked on. Another design feature involves removing the doors midway through the process to make intricate work inside the car easier and more comfortable.

To reduce repetitive motion injuries to the upper extremities, Mazda installed adjustable racks that carry dashboard panels along the assembly line. One employee works on the front of the panel, attaching such things as the radio and the air duct assembly. Before the panel moves on to the next employee, who works on the back side, it is flipped around, so the second worker need not crawl behind the line or strain to reach the work area. In addition, robots were installed to do a lot of the welding and to install spare tires.

Ergonomics also played a role in Mazda's hiring deliberations when it initially picked its workforce. The company received about 100,000 applications for the 2,800 hourly jobs. Applicants were carefully screened over a six-month period to determine how healthy they were, how they behaved in groups, how they performed in a factory setting, how they viewed safety in the workplace, and how they responded to, and accepted, change (i.e. changes in the manufacturing process for ergonomic, quality, or production purposes).

In Need of a Program

Yet, despite the attention given to ergonomics in the early stages, Mazda's work in this area was far from finished. Once the plant began production in September 1987, with the first Mazda MX-6s rolling off the assembly line, additional concerns about ergonomics surfaced.

"Plants can't be perfect," Galusha says. "They continually change with every new person and every new day. No initial setup can be so good that you can anticipate all of the problems. You still need a structure to handle ergonomics. …

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