Northern California manufacturers employ automation to help reduce repetitive-motion injuries

As news of one Sonoma County manufacturer’s issues with workplace safety made headlines, North Bay production plants point out the benefits of automation in reducing repetitive motion injuries on assembly lines.

“Automation is not a job killer, it’s a job creator,” Architectural Plastics CEO Blake Miremont said, while taking a wide view of the U.S. manufacturing economy. “I think automation is a way to bring jobs back.”

Miremont admits his Petaluma company, which creates acrylic dividers that have been in plentiful demand during the last two years of the coronavirus threat, mainly specializes in custom designs. But automated machines have chipped in to sand the products, a task his workers see as “tedious and boring.”

The plastic fabrication firm also employs a CNC machine that cuts the 4 foot by 8 foot acrylic pieces before they make their way to the “glue room” where workers put the product together. The duties the machines don’t perform vary, sometimes reducing the chance of employees getting hurt.

“This way we don’t have the risk of repetitive injuries,” Miremont said.

He contends the best of both worlds lies in a mix of workers and machines.

“We need this blend of automation with people trained to work around the machines,” he said.

Labcon, which is also headquartered in Petaluma, has invested about $20 million on automation and robotics machinery over the last 30 years to crank out its disposable medical devices. A staff of 260 people that used to produce 1 million parts per day may do five or six times that ratio, President James Happ indicated. In another example, the molding machine outperforms the worker by a 2-to-1 margin.

“As companies grow and robots are doing the grunt work, they discover workers can work at a higher level,” he said. “It’s not like robots can fix themselves.”

Happ is convinced more jobs will return to U.S. plants, especially as the Asian supply chain remains bottlenecked. Without the nation employing more machinery to perform manual tasks, it fails to compete from a cost efficiency standpoint.

Closer to the coast, Marin County manufacturing companies have also seen an investment in automation to perform tedious tasks in select areas of their plants.

EO Products based in San Rafael develops body care products — many of them with at least one thing in common. They need tops. That is why co-founder Susan Griffin-Black invested about $500,000 on a “capping” machine to handle the task for pumps, sprays and other bottles. The automatic capper’s set up time consumes about four hours and may fulfill about 100,000 bottles over a half hour period.

“This was one of our earlier investments because of the probability of repetitive stress (on our workers),” she told the Business Journal.

Since its inception in 1995, Griffin-Black said the manufacturing firm has seen a few workers’ compensation cases pass her desk, but they mostly involved back injuries caused by employees lifting heavy objects.

“We have had more flexibility in general for many years running semi-automatic lines. We also move people around to prevent repetitive motion injuries,” she said.

Repetitive motion injuries hit home

Most of the manufacturing company executives agree the use of automation and robotics helps reduce the number of injuries, but at what cost?

The topic became top of mind when NBC News recently reported a story about five Amy’s Kitchen workers with complaints the family-owned natural foods company failed to protect them from injuries they said were caused by speed ups in the assembly line.

As of press time, the Business Journal was unable to reach the workers in question.

Amy’s Kitchen Chief People Officer Mike Resch pledged his company is “proactively investigating each of the claims” made from the report.

“The leadership at Amy’s Kitchen cares deeply about the health, safety and well-being of our people, and appreciate the opportunity to share our approach to workplace safety (with) disability management and automation in manufacturing,” Resch said. The executive of the vegetarian frozen and canned food maker views automation “as a tool that is (an) additive to our performance and ability to create delicious food for our consumers.”

As for worker safety, the company cited a 2021 rate of “recordables,” meaning the number of injuries, from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as 2.35, compared with industry standards for food manufacturing ranging from 4.8 to 5.

According to the California Department of Industrial Relations, which houses the workers’ comp division, half the injuries caused at work involve continuous functions.

Will Ferchland, a workers’ compensation attorney in Santa Rosa, has represented over a dozen Amy’s employees in the last eight years who filed workers compensation now-closed claims from injuries they alleged were sustained on the job. Their jobs included jar inspectors in the soup division, along with bakers, forklift drivers and others on the production line.

Under the law, the employer must provide a claim form for workers’ compensation benefits within one working day after the work injury is reported. Moreover, if a doctor gives a worker restrictions, then any work assigned to the employee must meet these restrictions.

The problem escalates when an employer doesn’t follow workers’ compensation laws because many workers feel compelled to keep working regardless to collect a paycheck “and thus never recovers, or stops working but eventually becomes destitute,” Ferchland pointed out.

The Sonoma County attorney has not noticed any upward or downward trends in the number or quality of workers’ compensation cases, including in the last two years of the pandemic.

“People are still working, and people have a chance of getting injured,” he said.

Whether or not the end-all answer to alleviating workplace injuries revolves around replacing people with machines is up in the air. There are still issues surrounding robots stepping in for people.

“Automation in the workforce may be good for the bottom line, but it’s not good for the local economy. Laws must be followed for the injured workers to get treatment and get them back to work when the doctor, not the boss, deems them ready,” he said.

That’s precisely the concern from North Bay labor advocates, who insist production efficiency should never come at the expense of the worker.

“It’s inappropriate to have health and safety standards that end up eliminating workers,” North Bay Jobs with Justice Executive Director Max Bell Alper said. “Automation can only be beneficial if it’s worker centric.”

With wine harvest as an example in which eight people working in an area all day is now done with a machine and two people in two hours, Alper advises communities begin to think about a bold, new retraining program in which the private and public sectors share the responsibility. He recommends government manage a fund companies pay into for the workers’ retraining.

“The question of automation is complicated. It’s important to take a holistic approach,” he said. “If we simply reduce jobs, those people won’t make it. We can’t talk about automation without thinking about those people in our society. Automation can be great if we make it people focused.”

Apparently, the fear has enveloped millennials, according to a recent online survey conducted by the Harris Poll and initiated by the American Staffing Association Workforce Monitor, an employee staffing research data and advocacy organization based in Alexandria, Virginia.

According to the survey, 52% of millennials feared automation would threaten their jobs. Over half of those polled in the 26–41-age group sharing the sentiment compared to the older demographics, 31% of baby boomers and 33% of Gen Xers, feeling the same way.

American Staffing President President Richard Wahlquist attributes the elevated fear among millennials to that demographic being the largest group in the U.S. workforce.

“And they know they have a long time on the job left,” he told the Business Journal.

But regardless of the fear, automation is here to stay at factories across the nation.

“The most natural thing in the world in science and technology is going to continue to create efficiencies in society,” he said, noting a 2017 McKinsey study that found 60% of all occupations have at least 30% automation functions in running their operations.

“Automation through innovation and modernization is going to happen. The cotton gin started this whole thing,” North Bay Labor Council Executive Director Jack Buckhorn said of the 1794 invention. “What we can’t lose sight of is how this benefits or should benefit the workers. It’s going to take some thought.”

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