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GM reviewing employee tasks


At least one local assembly plant takes the physical needs of aging workers into account when designing jobs.

General Motors Co. is investing $275 million in equipment and construction to outfit its Allen County truck assembly plant to build the next-generation Silverado and Sierra. Production is scheduled to start in 2013.

Gwen Malone, GM’s global manager for ergonomics, said her group is involved in behind-the-scenes preparations for that new assembly line. Ergonomics is the science of “designing and arranging things people use so that the people and things interact most efficiently and safely,” according to Webster’s dictionary.

GM uses a three-dimensional hologram of an average worker to evaluate whether certain tasks in the assembly process are too demanding. Each motion is repeated at least 475 times per shift – the number of trucks the Allen County plant builds every eight hours.

The studies are done, Malone said, three or four years before a product is being built, allowing GM to design machines used during assembly for workers’ benefit.

Among the questions the ergonomics team asks, Malone said, is “how far does an operator have to reach to put the console in” the vehicle?

Since Malone took charge of the group in January 2011, the team has done more than 850 such simulations, she said.

“Safety is our overriding priority, and quality is important,” she said.

But keeping workers healthy is also good business, said Bob Fox, a GM Technical Fellow who works with Malone. They are based in Michigan.

Manufacturers incur a lot of costs when workers get hurt on the job, including workers’ compensation claims and money spent hiring and training new workers, he said.

GM’s local assembly plant also has an ergonomics department on site.

“Comprised of salaried and hourly employees, our ergonomics department tests, audits, and verifies that each operation in the plant can be safely performed in a designated amount of time,” local GM spokeswoman Stephanie Jentgen said in an email.

The goal, she said, is “to ensure that each operation is safe for workers at any stage of their career.”

Each GM plant has a similar team, Malone said. The Detroit-based company established its ergonomics department in 1990. GM workers’ average age is over 46.