When Sherry Meyer injured her wrist two years ago, her doctors told her there was no way she could return to the production line at Herman Miller Inc.'s furniture manufacturing plant where she had been cutting and packing wood veneer.
“I was the sole support for my three children and all of a sudden I faced the question of how I was supposed to support them.”
“I was really frightened,” she adds, because she feared that with only a high school education. she would not find another job.
But thanks to a special rehabilitation and retraining program that had just begun at Herman Miller, Meyer was offered a chance to work in the audio-visual department, showing films to the company employees, customers and dealers.
“I had never even turned on a projector,” she said. Today, Meyer is the company’s full-time projectionist, who not only runs the projector, but also does some videotaping for the company as well. “I’m doing things I never thought I’d do,” she says.
Runs a Computer
Similarly, when a material handler at the factory dislocated his shoulder, making it impossible for him to lift anything above his shoulders again, it looked like he would be out of job permanently. But the company started looking for other jobs for him--despite his resentment at the company for causing him to “have lost his manlihood,” company officials say.
Today, the former laborer is a computer operator, drawing detailed design layouts for the company. “He’s so good, people are fighting over his services,” said Steve Fowler, Herman Miller’s plant manager.
These are two of the nearly 300 success stories Herman Miller has had since it opened its Transitional Work Center 2 1/2 years ago. The center is one of a handful of corporate rehabilitation centers across the country designed to bring injured or disabled workers back to work quickly, even if the workers are not able to return to their old jobs.
At Herman Miller, “restricted” workers--the company adamantly refuses to use the words “disabled” or “handicapped” even if an employee has received a permanent crippling injury--are encouraged to return to work as soon as they are medically able.
If an employee eventually is able to go back to his or her old job, he or she will be given lighter tasks--ranging from stuffing envelopes to driving a van from factory to factory to pick up parts--until the employee’s doctor says the patient is ready to return to the old job full-time.
However, if an employee cannot return to the old job, instead of sending the worker home with disability compensation, the company will find a new job for the worker that will meet all the medical restrictions--without any salary reduction. And training will be provided, if necessary.
Herman Miller “is on the frontier of helping its workers who become disabled during their employment, whether or not the disability was incurred through employment,” said Sheila Akabas, director of the Industrial Social Welfare Center of the Columbia University School of Social Work. The company gives a high priority to employee morale and involvement in the business and sees its approach to disabled workers as an extension of that concern.
Traditionally, Akabas said, companies have tended to pay little attention to their disabled workers, encouraging them to retire early instead of trying to adapt jobs to fit their needs.
“Faced with exceedingly costly disability payments, many companies are now wondering whether it would be better to accommodate these people at the work place rather than pay these people off,” she adds.
Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing Co. launched a rehabilitation program “because the company has an obligation to its employees--they are our best resources,” says Deborah Beaudway, rehabilitation counselor.
But beyond that, she said, “it’s good business and saves the company a lot of money.”
Beaudway said that it takes time and money to find, hire and train a person for a job. Thus, when illness, injury or emotional problems prevent an employee from performing a job, the company loses its investment, faces insurance costs for the disabled employee, and then must hire and perhaps train a replacement.
“Rather than having employees sitting at home, let’s make them productive employees; rather than paying them compensation, let’s put them on salary,” Beaudway said.
Currently 3M is spending about $6,000 to install a mechanical lift and redo a restroom in one of its plants for a worker who was seriously injured in an automobile accident two years ago. Now a quadriplegic who gets around in a motorized wheelchair, the employee will be working at a computer terminal nearby.
“This is good to do for everyone,” Beaudway said, noting that such actions greatly improve staff morale. Yet, she adds, it is also in the company’s self-interest.
Adolph Coors Co. estimates that it has saved a total of $10 million during the four years its rehabilitation center has been operating. The company has treated more than 1,800 workers with short-term health problems and 166 employees with long-term disabilities. More than 80% of the employees they treated have returned to work.
Among them was a young female construction worker who fell from a 30-foot platform and suffered multiple orthopedic injuries. The company put her through secretarial training and she now is an administrative coordinator for a construction group.
In another instance, a young iron worker began suffering from a neurological disease that made it impossible for him to work at his original job. He is now in charge of a tool room nearby.
$56 Billion a Year
According to the Menninger Foundation’s Rehabilitation Research and Training Center, workers’ disabilities cost the U.S. economy more than $56 billion annually.
Every year, more than 400,000 workers sustain injuries or illnesses that disable them for at least one month. Approximately half of these people never return to work, although half of them will live for more than 10 years. Of those people who do eventually return to work, 40% are off work more than a year,” concludes a new study by the center.
The costs are certain to grow as the current labor force ages.
“By the turn of the century, one-half of the U.S. population will be physically disabled, chronically, ill, or over 65 years of age,” concludes the center.
“This puts a heavy burden on active workers in the remaining half (of the population). As this date draws near, keeping as many people as possible able and working will become even more important not only to individuals, but also to the American economy.” The able workers must support the Social Security benefits of the retired and disabled.
“Our average age of the laborer on the floor is 22 to 25. So if someone is young and gets hurt, we have a long-time buy-in,” says Ken Wright Jr., head of Herman Miller’s Transitional Work Center.
Edward J,. Hester, director of the Menninger Center, said that it has not been easy to convince employers and employees about the need for a rehabilitation program. While many employers question its costs and effectiveness, employees are equally skeptical, fearful that such programs are really an effort to deprive them of benefits they feel they have earned, he said.
“There is a general feeling out in the work place that if a person is disabled, it is his right to collect disability benefits--he has earned them. Also, in areas where there are layoffs, many workers believe they should stay at home and not deprive other people of working.”
Nonetheless, the rehabilitation programs are beginning to catch on, partly because a growing number of states are enacting laws requiring companies to retrain workers injured on the job.
The key to success, Hester and other rehabilitation experts say, is early contact with the employees to encourage them to return to the work place as soon as possible even if they are working fewer hours or are working at different jobs--or both.
“If someone with a back injury is out of work for a year, there is only a 20% chance of (his) returning to work,” said Dr. Bernard Meeuwsen, Herman Miller’s medical director.
As a result, Meeuwsen is in contact with an employee’s doctor as soon as any employee’s supervisor alerts him that a worker is off because of a medical problem.
After the doctor outlines the restrictions his patient must follow, Herman Miller sends a job-evaluation specialist to that employee’s post to see if the employee can do his or or old job--or one nearby in the same division while still meeting the doctor’s orders.
If not, Meeuwsen sends the employee to the Transitional Work Center where its director spends several hours interviewing the employee to see if there is another place in the company where he or she could fit.
“An employee works along and gets hurt,” says Wright. “That doesn’t mean he or she deserves any less; in fact, he or she probably deserves more until they can get back on their feet.”
Wright came to this job with no special rehabilitation training--his background, rather, was as a captain of a private corporate yacht. However, he says, that helped him learn a lot about people--as well as giving him no preconceived notions about how the program should be run.
When Herman Miller appointed him to the new post, Wright visited a nearby company that already had a rehabilitation program.
“There, the company had cut the employee’s pay in half and had put all of the restricted workers in a fenced-in area in the production floor where they sorted parts. The employees had three months to make rehabilitation work--or they were out the door. It was all an effort to intimidate people back to work,” he says.
Learning what not to do, Wright returned to Herman Miller and set up a small but cheerful office in an out-of-the way place where “restricted” workers could come and talk and work on temporary tasks, such as stuffing envelopes with shareholders statements. The office has become such a cheerful and friendly place that many of the workers, who have graduated from the program, still return frequently to say hello to Wright.