TRAVERSE CITY, Mich.—Alarmed by what it calls higher than normal incidents of injures and safety lapses, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has launched an inspection of auto parts plants across Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi.
The federal safety agency plans to send field agents to inspect some 2,900 factories—literally every auto parts plant in those three states—over the coming year.
But as suppliers gather here in Northern Michigan for an annual industry outlook conference, they may be surprised to discover that safety troubles in the South are not out of line with Detroit.
Labor data indicates that Michigan's parts industry is faring worse than its Southern counterparts.
For 2012, the most recent year for federal labor statistics, Alabama auto parts manufacturing had 4.8 OSHA injury and illness incidents per 100 employees, and Georgia had 3.7 per 100. Michigan auto parts plants recorded 6.3 OSHA incidents per 100 employees during the same period, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Mississippi does not report injury data.
Benjamin Ross, assistant regional administrator for OSHA Enforcement Programs in the agency's Atlanta office, says the agency has seen increased levels of incidents from inadequate machine safety guards and protection from electrical shock. The site inspections will look closely at those areas, he says.
OSHA safety fines can range from about $5,000 to $200,000 per infraction.
Trade associations in the three states are scrambling to prepare their auto-part manufacturers for the wave of inspections. Davis Woodruff, a 30-year manufacturing consultant from Alabama, has been working with plants across the region to help them identify problems before the inspectors arrive.
“They are coming,” Woodruff warns. “But there's no reason why any of these companies shouldn't have a thorough safety program already in place. It makes no sense why any manufacturer isn't doing everything possible to protect its employees.”
Ross says that OSHA has observed that attitudes toward formal, closely monitored safety programs differ from supply chain to supply chain. Some automakers do not require suppliers to meet safety standards, he says.
“If the auto manufacturers would make having a formal safety program a pre-requisite to do business with them, this would all be so easy,” he says. “If the customer required all their parts suppliers to do it, they would.”