By MICHELLE KERR, who writes on risk management and safety issues
Not all that long ago, the car you drive today went through an assembly line. A lot of people touched that vehicle before it came off the line and eventually a salesperson handed you the keys. What do you know about those people? What were they thinking about while they put your car together? Were there any accidents? Did anyone get hurt?
Of course, there's no way to get answers to those questions. If there was, though, it could actually change the way you think about choosing a vehicle. Consider that most production injuries can be attributed to a failure of people, process, or equipment. No injuries equals no failures. No failures equals better quality products. Logically then, the fewer the injuries, the better the vehicles.
Kerry Dove will tell you the same thing. As senior manager of the Safety and Medical Management department at Smyrna, Tenn.-based Nissan North America, Dove has helped transform that logic into a way of thinking and a way of doing business. Dove and his team have revitalized the company's safety and medical management programs, and the rewards have been many. The company's injury frequency and lost-time statistics have plummeted since 2002, and the company's workers' compensation loss projections for 2010 are down 64 percent from 2004.
Here's the success marker that matters most of all: At Nissan North America, production technicians know there's a team of top-notch safety and medical management professionals watching their backs. They know that if there's a hazardous condition, those professionals will find it and fix it. They know that if they get hurt, they'll receive high-quality care, and that every effort will be made to facilitate a recovery. Their peace of mind empowers them to stay focused on what they do best.
That's why Risk & Insurance® honors the work of Dove and his team by selecting Nissan North America the 2010 winner of the Theodore Roosevelt Workers' Compensation and Disability Management Award in the for-profit sector.
Nissan North America maintains two manufacturing facilities in Tennessee and one in Mississippi. While operations include nonmanufacturing units such as engineering, marketing and a testing facility, it's the production side that keeps Dove and his team on their toes.
With the repetitive nature of automotive assembly, production technicians have historically been prone to suffer strains and sprains--the types of conditions that are slow to heal, easy to reinjure and are often a major workers' comp cost driver.
That put Nissan and other auto manufacturers in an especially precarious position when the economy began its decline a couple years ago. While nearly every industry suffered, the automotive industry experienced something that looked eerily like a freefall than a downturn. New car sales fell dramatically. Automakers that didn't fold or file for bankruptcy had to make some painful choices, including cutting production, laying off staff, and even closing manufacturing facilities. Nissan North America and its peers were under more pressure than ever to manage costs, improve quality and remain competitive.
Many companies across the nation responded by freezing spending across the board, including investments in safety or in improving workers' comp performance. Nissan North America rejected that logic.
Risk managers were perceptive enough to see the situation as an opportunity. By investing even more resources in safety and efficiency protocols, they figured the company could reduce workers' comp costs, maintain profitability, improve the quality of care for its employees and boost overall efficiency.
The reasoning was sound. Nissan North America has weathered the worst of the economic storm, emerging with lower workers' comp costs and a stronger competitive position among global Nissan manufacturing peers.
In fact, the company's efforts have helped fuel growth. Its Canton, Miss., facility was recently selected to be a manufacturing center for three new Nissan light commercial vehicle models.
In addition, the Smyrna location has been chosen as a manufacturing center for Nissan's new zero-emissions Leaf vehicle, which will also entail the construction of an on-site battery factory. Given that Nissan typically opts to make all of its leading technology vehicles in Japan, Nissan North America is especially proud of the selection.
SIMPLE CHANGES, BIG RESULTS
While Nissan North America managers are fully committed to investing in improvements in safety and medical management, Nissan still has to contend with the same financial constraints as any other company does in a tight economy. That's why it's interesting to note that some of the company's most significant cost containment has been derived from changes that cost little or nothing to implement.
Here's an example: Any injury requiring a prescription for pain medication or physical therapy is considered an Occupational Safety & Health Administration recordable injury, and recordable injuries were being factored into each department's performance statistics. So even when it might have been possible to keep an employee with a recordable injury at work, the department's numbers had already taken the hit for the injury.
Dove and his team realized that was causing managers to lose sight of the importance of keeping those employees at work, and changed the performance metric to separate injuries from their OSHA recordable status. That way, even when an opportunity to prevent an injury was lost, managers didn't lose sight of the benefits of finding appropriate placements for injured employees. The change was a subtle one, but it's made a world of difference.
Far bolder was the decision to not accept off-work restrictions from attending physicians. That may raise eyebrows in some sectors, but the logic behind it is rock solid.
"We didn't want to leave it up to the physicians to say whether an employee can or cannot work," said Justin Rhodes, Nissan North America's Medical Management Manager. "We just didn't want to be handcuffed and to not have the ability to even search for a placement opportunity. Instead, we wanted to empower the physicians to tell us what the employee can and cannot do, and then let us determine whether or not we can find placement; we wanted that decision to be made by Nissan."
Nissan designed a detailed attending-physician form that each injured employee takes along when visiting on outside physician. The form gives Nissan specific details such as which body parts the injured person can't use, which activities can be performed and for what length of time. What the form doesn't do is put the physician in the position to decide whether the employee can or can't work.
The team is exceptionally good at finding unique jobs for employees while they recover, Rhodes said, and the company is deeply committed to finding placements that are meaningful. "We don't create jobs for folks to come in and count nuts or bolts," Dove said. "We put them in jobs that have true value." The litmus test, he said, is "If we didn't have somebody with restrictions doing it, would it have to be done anyway?"
Neither of these changes was unusually complex or costly to implement, but the impact is undeniable. Lost time, previously one of Nissan North America's primary cost drivers, was reduced by 67 percent from 2007 to 2009 alone, and the trend continues. "I believe we have everyone firmly pointed in the same direction now," Dove said.
'NO SACRED COWS'
Collaboration is a key part of the platform that Nissan North America has built its success upon, Dove said. It has formed strong bonds with broker Beecher Carlson, third-party administrator ESIS and Comprehensive Health Services, which provides on-site medical services for all facilities. The company relies on the expertise of its vendors to improve safety and medical management performance. "Nissan can't do this all by ourselves," Dove said.
Nissan North America demands a lot from its partners, and Dove's team interviews every person that a vendor wants to bring onto the team. "We look for the best that they have," he said. "And we ask them, 'What do you bring to the table? What can you do to help us get better?'" From the very first interviews, The Nissan team spells out it expectations. Complacency is not tolerated. Each team member should be on a continuous quest for improvement. Vendors are expected to demand the same from Nissan in return.
"We ask them to challenge everything that we do," Rhodes said. "And I can guarantee you that we challenge everything that they do. It's part of the mindset we have. It's an ongoing cycle of wanting to get better. Even when we're good, we want to get better."
Dove said, "There's only one rule. We will not sacrifice top-quality medical care for any reason."
Jane Warren, a managing director with Atlanta-based broker Beecher Carlson, said the Nissan mindset creates a highly productive dynamic that brings out the best from everyone involved.
"From the beginning of our engagement," Warren said, "Nissan set the expectation that although they might have achieved 'world class' status, they expected their partners to take them to the next level, to identify the areas where there is opportunity for improvement."
"We truly don't have any sacred cows," Dove said. "And that empowers them to bring those opportunities to us. And we don't throw any of them away; we let them vet out every idea they have. It keeps them very engaged in our process."
That high level of interaction is deeply satisfying to Nissan's partners, who appreciated being regarded as partners rather than vendors. "The opportunity to collaborate with Nissan North America in bringing new ideas to the table, finding solutions and improvement opportunities--in the effort to provide effective claims management services--is one we have relished," said Kim Metzler, an account manager with ESIS Inc.
What's more, Warren said, the successes come more quickly within such a dynamic environment, which helps keep everyone excited and energized. "Nissan really 'walks the talk' when it comes to continuous improvement and teamwork," she said. "And the real reward is in improved recovery and injury outcomes for the employees."
Nissan North America has made great strides since the implementation of its Safety One program in 2002. And with its core-level dedication to continuous improvement, there's great potential for what Dove and his team might accomplish in the future. That will help the company continue to draw and retain top talent as it grows and attracts more products to its manufacturing facilities.
"We have a great workforce," Dove said, "and we want to take care of them. Our employees are our most valued resource. I know that sounds cliché but it's the truth."
"Our workforce really appreciates and understands the value of having a safe place to work," he said. "When something does happen, they know that we're going to get to the root cause and we're going to fix it. As we've gotten better and better, I think they've come to expect that from us. And I believe that's a very fair expectation."
November 1, 2010
Copyright 2010© LRP Publications