Danger lurked at old auto plants, built to spit out cars, not keep workers in one piece. Injuries on the floor were common.
Worse, auto companies in the early years of the industry would fire workers hurt in the line of duty and unable to return to work.
There was no disability list, no compensation, no employer assumption of responsibility. Just a firing and a hiring drawing from the employment lines that stretched out as the 1930s hard times wore on.
Today, safety is a big deal at auto factories, where management fixates on tallying up injury-free days. That goal has gone global, as evidenced by the working conditions at Thailand automotive factories I recently toured.
Worker safety is discussed at daily floor meetings. It is emphasized on large signs posted throughout the premises. It is factored into how manufacturing processes are set up and the way tooling is designed.
“Our No.1 priority is safety,” says Michael Diamente, managing director of supplierSpicer Thailand. “Our goal is for everyone to leave here at the end of a shift in the same condition they arrived.”
Adds Martin Apfel, president ofThailand: “Our philosophy is that all accidents are preventable.”
Those are enlightened statements, the kind you wouldn’t hear back when worker safety took a backseat to vehicle output.
Some jobs are inherently more dangerous than others, but plant life is safer today for lots of reasons. Here are three.
One, hazardous working conditions can cost a fortune. We may love to hate litigators, but huge lawsuit damage awards get the attention of people who negligently, casually or cavalierly weren’t paying attention before.
Two, when unions such as the United Auto Workers and United Mine Workers successfully organized, they fought for safer work environments and fairer treatment of hurt workers.
Three, government got more involved. Some people decry perceived over-regulation, but factories, coal mines and virtually all places of employment are safer because of federal agencies such as the Occupational Safety and Health Admin.
Good laws change opinions, then attitudes and ultimately values. We’ve seen that evolution in how auto makers now value the well-being of their employees.
In the old days, the UAW and auto makers fought like dogs and cats. They still snarl at each other now and then over this and that. Such is the nature of the relationship. But the hurtful ongoing animosity is gone. That happens when workers know the boss cares.