March 2005 
Volume 03, Issue 10 
Integrated Defense Systems

Safety (and quality) First

C-17 program begins plan to cut injuries


Safety (and quality) FirstOver the past decade, Boeing's C-17 Globemaster III program has built its reputation on worldclass quality. The advanced airlifter has won dozens of prestigious honors, including leading Boeing Airlift and Tankers to the esteemed Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award.

Now, the Long Beach, Calif.–based program is embarking on a journey to become world-class in safety, as well as quality.

"Integral to quality and woven throughout our value system lies a sometimes forgotten imperative—safety first," said Dave Bowman, vice president and C-17 program manager. "When our teammates are injured, it's bad for them and it's bad for our business."

As a result, the C-17 program in late 2004 began taking major steps toward building a safety culture that's expected to reduce injuries by 25 percent this year and 50 percent by the end of 2006. Bowman said achieving these goals will require breakthrough performance improvements and a guiding hand from someone already world-class at safety. That's why the C-17 program is partnering over the next two years with DuPont Safety Resources.

"DuPont has taught us, and I firmly believe it—that all injuries can be prevented," said Bowman. "Safety is everyone's responsibility, and it begins with me."

Laird Hepburn, a DuPont safety consultant, is encouraged by what he's seen so far in the C-17 safety initiative's infancy. "You've got a bunch of open-minded, positive people here," he said. "And they're receptive to change."

Over a 12-month period, the C-17 program had 503 first-aid cases, 377 OSHA (U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration) recordable injuries, 125 lost-time injury cases—and 23,251 lost days due to injury. Add it all up and one of the results is workers compensation costs estimated at $2.5 million for every aircraft that rolls through the factory. Lowering these injury rates and costs could help keep the C-17 competitive in the marketplace.

Safety (and quality) FirstKenny Elmore, safety committee chair for the United Aerospace Workers union, Local 148, that represents about 2,600 C-17 shop flo or employees, said, "I know we're going to be successful because it's being driven from the top down, and it has total commitment across the program—including the UAW safety committee."

One of the key elements in the C-17's safety drive is its new Ergonomic Center, based on the premise that safe employees will be more productive, effective, happy—and most of all, healthy and uninjured. The facility, which opened in July 2004, is believed to be the first of its kind at Boeing.

What is ergonomics? It's the application of scientific information about humans' capabilities and limitations to the design of objects, systems and environment for human use. At least that's the academic definition. In Long Beach, ergonomics is a C-17 focus area to maximize workplace safety and in the end, improve customer satisfaction.

"A comfortable worker is more likely to produce a quality product for the customer," said Tim Miller, C-17 director of lean manufacturing, ergonomics and technical integration. "Our goal at the Ergonomic Center is to deliver value to customers and stakeholders—and in this case, value is measured in reduced injuries and workers compensation costs."

Miller said the C-17 Ergonomic Center combines the worlds of lean, safety, technology and employee involvement. Lean techniques, such as Accelerated Improvement Workshops, are being used to discover and enact sound ergonomic practices. Boeing's Lean Manufacturing Assessment tool will assess the robustness of the C-17's ergonomic program.

"This facility is being used as the nerve center for identifying opportunities to make our workplace as safe as possible," said Miller. "And it's helping reduce repetitive stress injuries and muscular skeletal disorders."

About 90 percent of the ergonomic injuries on the Long Beach site, many of them strains and sprains, are production related. Risk factors for injuries include awkward posture or position, vibration, contact stress, frequency, manual material handling and force. The consequences are cumulative trauma disorders—also known as musculoskeletal disorders, repetitive motion injuries, and repetitive strain injuries.

For Long Beach's C-17 production workforce, on average 55 years old, ergonomics can offer some helpful solutions. Some are as simple as muscle stretching at the beginning of a work shift.

"The work we do is pretty darn physical," said 76-year-old quality inspector Betty Cavanagh, who spends much of her days inside C-17 wing tanks, bending and contorting her body to get in and out of the confined spaces.

Every morning at 6:15, Cavanagh leads a 30-minute stretching group of a dozen or so C-17 mechanics, all of whom claim to be injury-free since they began the exercises five years ago. The stretching helps give participants a better range of motion and more energy. "It helps keep me young," she said. Added fellow mechanic Eddie Chambers: "It conditions the body for the tank, and for life."

Another solution to reduce injuries is ergonomic hand tools, which can help reduce injuries. Through hundreds of surveys and end-user testing and evaluation, factory mechanics last year helped decide which tools to order. Now, they're literally getting their hands on the new tools: 1,300 of them arrived in late 2004 and another 3,000 are on the way in 2005. It's the initial phase in a tool replacement program.

The new tools, such as hand drills and recoilless rivet guns, are designed to reduce cumulative trauma injuries. They're lighter and produce less vibration than the existing tools they'll replace.

"The work we do is not robotic. It's hands-on, repetitive work," said Elmore, the UAW safety representative. "We're building high-tech airplanes, and we need to be doing it with high-tech tools. Our mechanics are very eager to get their hands on the new tools."

Whether it's using tools, stretching, body-support pads or any number of other solutions, improving ergonomics and safety is all about changing attitudes and behaviors, said Shannon Dills, one of three full-time C-17 ergonomists.

"We've got to put appropriate solutions in place that address risk," she said. "No matter how good your technique is, you shouldn't be lifting a 200-pound box. Building a C-17 isn't an Olympic event."


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