Dianne Henderson, 66, has worked on General Motors’ assembly lines for more than three decades.
The repetitive, grueling work started to take a toll on her a few years ago. Arthritis crippled her left hand, her body was sore and stiff and she felt consistently fatigued.
But today, thanks in part to an athletic trainer brought on by GM, Henderson has no pain and no plans to call it quits.
“My body is my livelihood and I can bend over, I can pick things up,” said Henderson, who works at GM’s Lansing Delta Township Assembly Plant. There, she logs in nine miles a day on her Fitbit. “I don’t feel 66. I’m not ready yet to retire. I feel good.”
GM wants all its hourly workers to feel that good. So in late 2017, GM piloted a program at Lansing Delta Township hiring Work-Fit athletic trainer Corinne Peltier to walk the assembly line daily, watch how workers like Henderson moved, lifted, squatted and bent in their jobs, and then teach them a better way to do it to reduce injuries.
Nearly half of GM’s plant injuries are strains and sprains. Those can be costly injuries for GM in workers’ compensation claims. Also, injured workers are less productive. For workers, it can shorten their careers and their lifespans.
“We try to get the employees to think of themselves as industrial athletes,” said Matt Sedlarik, GM’s U.S. workplace safety manager in Warren. “You could take Lebron James, put him on the production floor and after eight hours his body is going to be sore. Same with our employees. If we can get a trainer to work with them on ways to prevent soreness and sprains, we will.”
While the Work-Fit program is young, early data suggests it’s working. Sedlarik declined to disclose the cost of the program, but said the results more than justify the expense.
From 2017 through 2019 GM has seen a 20% average reduction in strain and sprain injuries in its North American plants, said Sedlarik. He credits the Work-Fit trainers for part of that reduction along with other steps GM has taken, such as increased communication to employees about injury awareness, sprain and strain committees to assess common injuries and find ways to mitigate them, and increased ergonomic work stations.
As for the trainers, GM has one in each of the following six plants:
- Lansing Delta Township
- Wentzville Assembly plant in Missouri
- Fort Wayne Assembly in Indiana
- Fairfax Assembly in Kansas
- Arlington Assembly in Texas
- Flint Assembly
Popped disc, $100,000
A healthy worker is a better worker.
“The injured employee is not there and we have to re-train somebody else,” said Sedlarik. “That would be three to four times the direct cost.”
GM is self-insured and does not disclose how much it spends annually on workers’ compensation costs. But the number is probably pretty big, said workers’ compensation experts.
“We get a lot of shoulder, back and neck injuries,” said Andrea Hamm, a partner at Miller Cohen, a labor and employment law firm in Detroit.
Miller Cohen gets about 10 to 25 workers’ comp cases a year from workers at Detroit Diesel Corporation, Ford Motor Co., GM and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, Hamm said. Back surgery can cost $120,000 and workers’ comp insurance will pay $30,000 to $100,000 of it depending on what’s needed afterward, she said. Shoulder surgery is typically $10,000, she said.
“These injuries are very expensive,” said Hamm.
Indeed, in 2018 there were 253,602 workers’ compensation cases in Michigan, according to a state Workers’ Compensation Agency report. Those cases cost employers $98 million that year. In 2017, there were 119,365 cases at a cost of $103 million. The 2019 data is not available.
Peltier, 34, arrives daily at GM’s Lansing Delta Township Plant at 4:30 a.m. to be the Work-Fit trainer.
The 3.6 million-square-foot factory runs two shifts that churn out about 800 Chevrolet Traverse and Buick Enclave SUVs a day.
So if Peltier is going to interact with most of the 2,350 hourly workers on both shifts, she must arrive in the middle of the night and work through the middle of the day.
Peltier’s job is daunting given the sheer square footage she must cover while navigating the nonstop, rhythmic procession of cars rolling on the assembly line as workers perform the same task over and over.
Yet, she nonchalantly negotiates her way around the lines, eyeing workers and offering advice. Nearly every employee on the line knows her name and she knows theirs.
Her commitment to the program is personal. Peltier watched her father’s and grandfather’s bodies deteriorate over years of operating a small machine shop in Albion.
“I used to tell him, ‘Bend your knees dad,'” said Peltier, who’s been a trainer for 12 years. “I really identify with GM’s vision and model, which is making employees safe and healthy.”
Some days Peltier teaches body mechanics and self-care to classes of up to 170 employees. She will also conduct pre-work warm-up stretching to smaller teams.
Some of her other tips include:
- Tuck in elbows to avoid “chicken winging” thereby relieving stress on the rotator cuff
- Don’t sit on your wallet, it causes lower back pain
- Get new walking shoes every three to four months
- Do not cross legs, it causes hip and back pain
Ounce of prevention
Often, Peltier brazenly steps onto the moving assembly line to show even the most veteran worker a better way to do their job.
That’s how she met seat installer Doug James about a year ago.
The 32-year-old James had a bad habit of locking his knees when he lifted and slid the seats into the car. Without hesitation, Peltier told him the same thing she told her dad, “to bend my knees,” said James.
“She also told me to lift with two hands instead of one, to divide the weight,” James said. “It worked. It alleviated a lot of lower back pain.”
The two slowly bonded over hunting, for which her father had a passion. James and other guys on the line started seeking her out for guidance on safer ways to do their jobs.
“Assembly line work is taxing on your feet and hands,” said James, who’s worked 13 years for GM. “Your hands will be sore from one job and you go to another, it will go away, but you might hurt somewhere else.”
James worries about how he’ll age and he said he is grateful he has never had any work-related injuries that required surgery. He knows people his age who have had to have operations.
To prevent that, James wakes at 5 a.m. daily to do a series of stretches that Peltier taught him.
“This old gentleman at Grand Rapids Operations taught me to preserve my mind and my body,” said James, referring to GM’s Grand Rapids facility. “Prevention is what he preached.”
Peltier also met Henderson while walking along the assembly line in late 2018.
Henderson noticed her and called her over to her work station.
“I told her about my soreness and pain in my shoulders,” Henderson said.
Peltier watched Henderson using the drill gun on SUV shells as they passed above her on the line. Peltier knew why Henderson’s shoulders hurt.
“She was flaying her elbows out,” said Peltier, who taught Henderson to keep her arms closer to her body when overhead drilling for two hours a day.
Within a few months, Henderson said her shoulders started feeling better. Peltier also taught Henderson finger stretches to do three to four times a day and before bed to ease her arthritis.
Like James, Henderson was soon doing morning stretches. She started arriving to work 40 minutes ahead of her shift every day to do a team pre-work warm-up led by Peltier.
“I like to see behavior change,” said Peltier. “I know I succeeded in helping her and it makes me happy. You can feel good in your life as well as your job.”
Henderson said the extra time she spends doing Peltier’s stretches and exercises are worth it.
“She helped me along,” Henderson said. “I have no more aches and pains.”