Last year, new vehicle sales increased for the sixth consecutive year, setting a new record of 17.5 million car purchases. And although the state of Alabama has impressed many with its rapidly growing auto parts manufacturing sector, a recent Bloomberg report has cast doubt on the methods “New Detroit” has used to get those extraordinary results.
According to Bloomberg Businessweek, the Alabama auto parts industry currently employs about 26,000 workers. While some would like to believe that the growing auto parts sectors in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi represent a much-needed revitalization in American manufacturing work, Bloomberg insists that these factories provide little to no training, poor pay, and an unsafe environment for employees.
The profile offers detailed information into workplace accidents that took place at some of the South’s auto parts manufacturing plants. The safety of southern car factories is generally good, says David Michaels, who served as the head of OSHA during seven years of the Obama administration. But at parts suppliers, it’s a much different story.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employees at these southern auto parts factories earn only about 70 cents for every dollar that workers in Michigan do. Unionized plants are much more common in the North than in the South.
Subsequently, pay is low, hours are long, and turnover is high. Research has shown that workplace stress increases voluntary turnover by almost 50%, and with the difficult work conditions and low pay, it’s no surprise these factories have trouble holding onto good people.
Many businesses try to combat workplace stress with implemented programs or perk benefits. For instance, 46% of companies that allow telework say doing so has reduced attrition. But in a hands-on job like manufacturing, that’s not an option. And even if it was, Bloomberg asserts, those who run these plants might not even care.
As is evidenced by the horrific safety accidents outlined in the report, safety training is scarce and may come only after a serious incident.
According to Bloomberg, a 20-year-old Ajin USA employee, Regina Elsea, died as a result of injuries she sustained after becoming trapped in a factory machine. When a jam occurred that stopped the assembly line, workers called maintenance to clear the fault. No one showed up, so Elsea made an attempt to clear the fault herself — so that the team could make their quota on time. Elsea was crushed against a steel dashboard frame, her body impaled with welding tips. Not even the technician knew how to free her from the machine. When rescue workers finally arrived, they followed the correct procedure — turning off the emergency power switch — which the factory’s employees failed to do. Elsea succumbed to her injuries a day later.
According to OSHA, Ajin never gave its workers their lawfully required safety locks and training on how to use them. Ajin contests this claim, but the factory and its staffing agencies are now facing a multitude of OSHA violation fines in connection with the accident. This past December, Elsea’s mother filed a wrongful death suit against them. She says she still has yet to hear anything from Ajin; they merely sent a single, artificial flower to her daughter’s funeral, an all-too appropriate symbol of the sector’s facade.
Elsa’s case is by no means rare. The report also profiled Cordney Crutcher, who lost a finger after a supervisor tagged him in to replace a slower worker as he was leaving for the day. Crutcher had already worked a 12-hour shift, but complied. As he was getting ready to finish, the cast iron hole puncher snapped off his pinkie. Now, Crutcher works at a unionized factory that provides training and much better pay.
After taking note of the steep amount of safety violations in the region, OSHA’s Atlanta office cracked down on area factories in 2014. The agency found that in 2010, Alabama parts plant workers had a 50% higher rate of illness and injury than the whole of the U.S. auto parts industry. Since, the gap has narrowed, but the traumatic injuries in Alabama plants is still 9% higher than those in Michigan and 8% higher than the rate in Ohio. And in 2015, the risk of losing a limb or finger in an Alabama plant was twice the national amputation risk for the entire sector.
The Bloomberg report makes it clear that unionized factories in the South make the necessary steps to protect their workers, but the remainder of Alabama factories need to follow suit. Otherwise, the pride of American-made auto products may cease to exist.