Last month, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Toyota Motors’ Department of Environmental and Safety Engineering, pledging to:

“to improve the assessment, management, analysis, and control of workplace conditions related to the safety and health of employees.”

The news release suggests this is a two-party agreement, not the tripartite labor-managment-goverment model we expect for health and safety projects.   It’s hard to imagine how the goals of the MOU can be accomplished successfully without on-par involvement of workers.

Nancy Lessin of the United Steelworkers’ Tony Mazzocchi Center for Health, Safety and Environmental Education offers us her perspective below on this new NIOSH-Toyota partnership. 

The pairing of NIOSH and Toyota to collaborate on research to improve workplace health and safety and identify best practices (without the participation of the workforce, mind you), tackling such things as ergonomics and comprehensive worksite programs, conjures up the image of absurd pairings such as the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and Bernie Madoff teaming up to fix financial institutions, or more topically, the insurance industry teaming up with Congress to fix the nation’s health care system.

The Toyota Production System, developed in post-World War II Japan, has been hailed world-wide as a “miracle” system that advances productivity, quality and efficiency.  It has been adopted by industries throughout manufacturing, and has now entered construction, health care and many other sectors of the economy, often under the name “lean manufacturing”, “lean production” or just plain “lean.”  Lean is about doing more with less, getting rid of “waste” and anything that doesn’t “add value” to the product or service.  It is important to understand what this means from an occupational safety and health standpoint, where lean is unveiled as something else: management by stress. 

A core element in lean is what is known as “kaizen” or “continuous improvement.”   Unfortunately, “continuous improvement” does not mean continuously improving workers’ wages, benefits, health and safety or other working conditions.  In reality it means pushing workers to work harder and faster (forget the “work smarter, not harder” myth).  This is accomplished by removing the micro-breaks where muscles, tendons and nerves get the kind of momentary down-time that serves to prevent musculoskeletal injuries; and removing workers themselves, in a race with no finish line. 

Across the nation, workers and local unions identify “doing more with less” (increased workloads, job combinations, increased pace of work, extended working hours, fewer workers) as a major cause of workplace injury, illness and death.  For this, we can thank “lean” and the Toyota Production System.  And in Japan, thanks to the Toyota Production System, there are now two compensable occupational diseases not yet compensable in other nations’ workers compensation systems: karoshi (death from overwork) and karo jisatsu (suicide from overwork). 

There are many resources that do an excellent job of deconstructing and exposing the considerable down-sides of the Toyota Production System and “lean” in general.  Here are a few: “Japan in the Passing Lane: An Insider’s Account of Life in a Japanese Auto Factory” by Satoshi Kamata, (1982), Pantheon Books, ISBN 0-394-52718-6. Here’s a quote from the dust jacket:

Satoshi Kamata, a Japanese free-lance journalist, decided in the early 1970s to see for himself what life in an auto factory was really like. …In this straightforward, powerful insider’s diary, instead of guarantees of lifetime employment, we find workers used up and discarded;…. instead of the spirit of Zen, only a spirit of company unionism; and instead of miraculous robots, people who are being driven as if they were machines.

“Working Smart: A Union Guide to Participation Programs and Reengineering” by Mike Parker and Jane Slaughter, (1994) Labor Notes.   This book introduces the concept of “management by stress” and, in looking at experiences in sectors ranging from manufacturing to health care to the public sector, it presents a set of challenges to “lean” and “mean”. 

See also the Job Stress Network, the home page of the Center For Social Epidemiology.  This website brings together information about and related to Job Strain (specifically) and Work Stress (in general).  It includes research on occupational safety and health problems associated with “lean,” among many other issues. 

Given that NIOSH is partnering with Toyota to envision better workplace health and safety, with no worker or union voices in the mix, we should be afraid, we should be very afraid.  And we should act, raising our voices and concerns about this odd couple and its implications for occupational safety and health research.  This frightening pairing is an extension of the “partnerships” formed between occupational safety and health agencies and the corporate world under the Bush Administration.  These exclusive industry-management “partnerships” were wrong then, and they are wrong now.

Nancy Lessin is an occupational health and safety expert, now working with the  United Steelworkers’ Tony Mazzocchi Center for Health, Safety and Environmental Education.