It's 6:25 in the morning. The sun's rays, just awakening, haven't yet chased the chill from the air. Inside the Subaru-Isuzu Automotive (SIA) plant in Lafayette, Indiana, however, the air is hot from the panting breath of workers. As the triumphant sound of the theme from Rocky blasts from speakers, the automotive workers touch their toes and twist their torsos, and swing their arms like windmills in the wind.
Twice a day for five minutes, associates (employees) are encouraged to perform stretching to music before their shifts. The stretching exercises are designed to harden workers for physical labor to keep work-related injuries--specifically strained muscles and repetitive-motion injuries--at a minimum.
The stretching program has been a part of the operations at the plant since production began in September 1989. A year earlier, SIA managers had visited the plant's parent companies in Japan. They discovered that a morning stretch to music was standard practice at all the car companies in that country. They brought the music that the Japanese used during their exercising sessions back with them on tape.
SIA's management realized that the Japanese companies were onto something. Other car companies in the U.S., both domestic and Japanese-based, had confided in SIA that their workers were experiencing a large number of strained muscles and repetitive-motion injuries. The Bureau of Labor Statistics confirms this. According to the agency, workers in the automotive industry experience 9.6 lost workdays per 100 full-time workers. The national average for all industries is only 8.4.
Management at these other car companies had blamed the high accident rate on the need for loosening up or conditioning in preparation for the physical work. "They all wished that they had had something in place from the start" to control the situation, says Lee Ashton, personnel and training manager at Subaru-Isuzu. So SIA put a conditioning program in place.
Employees work out before they work. SIA's program ensures that production workers are prepared for physical labor before they hit the production line. It also prepares administrative and managerial personnel for repetitive-motion work, such as typing on computers. As part of all employees' orientations, the company teaches workers about work hardening, a name borrowed from gardening terminology. Just as gardeners gradually expose tender seedlings to the cold before leaving them out unprotected in the spring, so should employees prepare their bodies for work. By stretching and strengthening their muscles, workers run less risk of straining them on the job. "Our goal is to prevent injuries," says Mark Siwiec, manager of safety and environmental compliance at SIA. "If injuries do occur, however, they should be less severe."
The company's orientation for new hires lasts two weeks, or 80 hours. Of those 80 hours, 45 hours are devoted to physical training. During the employees' first week, physical training is minimal. The workers perform simple exercises (such as squeezing balls of putty to strengthen their arms and their grips), while sitting in a classroom, receiving instruction.
The second week of orientation is devoted completely to physical training, and workers receive a more comprehensive workout. An exercise physiologist leads them through low-impact aerobic exercises to improve their cardiovascular fitness. She teaches them how to stretch properly and how to use the workout machines that the company bought specifically for the work-hardening program. Each piece of equipment is designed to strengthen specific parts of the body. For example, one machine contains a weighted device, which a worker must roll left and right to strengthen his or her forearms.
Although all employees go through the same orientation, they don't receive the same physical conditioning. Because of the physical nature of their jobs, production workers engage in a more intense program than the administrative and managerial staffs. …