It's no secret an auto plant can be a dangerous place to work, especially if safety rules are not followed or don't even exist. The Automotive Industry Action Group (AIAG) is working with volunteers from the Big Three and various auto suppliers to prevent some of the more common causes of injuries and deaths in auto plants. AIAG, a non-profit trade association in Southfield, MI, has started a health and safety initiative to find ways to prevent these largely avoidable incidents.

Twelve of the 15 deaths at United Auto Workers plants last year were due to unsafe machines and material handling, and eight of those killed were employed by a Big Three automaker or spin-off company. AIAG says 15 deaths is 15 too many, despite the fact this is a small percentage of the union's 700,000 plus members.

AIAG's machine energy controls work group is creating guidelines, hoping to prevent machine-related accidents. It all comes down to equipment design, says Ron Tillinger, program manager of AIAG's Occupational Health and Safety steering committee. “What the work group hopes to do is layout details of how to go about — when you design a piece of equipment — to make sure you take industrial guarding into effect, make sure you take noise levels into effect,” he says.

Forklift safety, such as proper restraint for drivers, is another common problem, as the U.S. sees 3,000 forklift accidents a day. Seat belts tend to be too restrictive and can trap a driver in an overturned vehicle. The law requires all moving vehicles to have seat belts, but when backing up a driver has to turn his head to see, causing neck strain.

So AIAG's industrial truck workgroup is looking at other restraining mechanisms that could be ergonomically better for the driver. “Is there some kind of seat that folds around where you can still have full access and turn, so if there is an accident he can still be held back, or if he turns over, can get out?” asks Mr. Tillinger.

Although companies could see considerable savings by standardizing safety procedures and practices, “what's important is saving lives — money is pretty much a second-rate issue,” says Ema DeMink, advisory program specialist at AIAG. Mr. Tillinger agrees. “How do you value a human being's life?” he says. “You want to put a value on a person's life? This person got killed and he's worth $5,000, and that person got killed, he's a higher level, he's worth $10,000. It's stupid to go down that path.”

Still, the economic benefits cannot be ignored. “The well-being of the person is looked at first and there are economic benefits there — you can't forget them. If there's less people hurt, there's less workman's compensation pay, there's less litigation costs, you're going to end up getting sued less because there's less people hurt. There's vast amounts of money to be saved if you standardize on best practices,” says Mr. Tillinger.

Work groups have met several times and are brainstorming and prioritizing issues. Serving on the steering committee are volunteer executives from General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co., Daimler-Chrysler Corp., Johnson Controls Inc., Delphi Automotive Systems Corp., Tenneco Automotive Inc., Federal-Mogul Corp., Visteon Corp. and others.

The steering committee still is in the early stages and doesn't expect to put out a publication or “deliverable” for about a year. However, work groups are being asked to speed up the process and think about how information will be disseminated, whether it be a booklet, online information or a training class or video.

Unlike QS-9000 and ISO-9000, quality standards that AIAG has created, the deliverables from AIAG regarding safety will only be recommendations, rather than mandatory rules.

“Everything that comes out of here will be a guideline, period,” says Mr. Tillinger. “Safety is a leadership role exactly like quality. Is quality mandatory? You can't say safety is mandatory as much as ISO-9000. It won't be anything like ISO-9000 where you're going to have accreditation. In fact, I think our steering committee fears that: that you're going to create a bureaucracy, that you're going to get audited.”

Mr. Tillinger says he believes those companies that want to take a leadership role, such as the Big Three and large suppliers, will make the guidelines mandatory, but he questions whether smaller companies, such as Tier 3 suppliers, will follow suit. “Let's say you're a plant with 5,000 people in it. How you implement that guideline is dramatically different than how you would if you had 50 people working at a plant,” he says. “GM may say this is mandatory, but if you go to a small plant, let's say a little supplier that has 50 people working there, they may take portions of that best practice and say, ‘Let's make these mandatory.’”

AIAG has other initial work groups developing best practices for pedestrian safety, industrial/guarding of machinery, handling of hazardous materials and optimum shipping and receiving. Work group members are subject-level experts from their respective companies.