Before they step up to their machines, workers at Marada Industries Inc.'s newest Carroll County plant shake their arms, tilt their heads, bend their backs and rotate their shoulders.
The Marada workers are among the first in the county to participate in a company-sponsored exercise program. The auto parts manufacturing corporation put the program into practice early this month at its new plant in an effort to prevent or reduce job-related repetitive-strain injuries.
The plant, called Marada II, is on the north side of Route 97 opposite the county air business center. It started production in May, welding intrusion beams for side and rear doors of cars, vans and trucks. The federal government will require intrusion beams to protect passengers in collisions on all 1997 models, but some automakers are installing them now. Marada supplies beams for General Motors Corp. minivans and trucks and Chrysler trucks.
Workers in the Marada II plant spot-weld the beams, using welding machines that require repeated similar motions.
"Carpal tunnel [syndrome] and these repetitive-motion injuries are very expensive," said Joe Mellon, second shift supervisor. "They've had people off for months [at Marada's original plant]."
Mr. Mellon said he did not have statistics available, but he recalled numerous workdays lost to carpal tunnel syndrome and similar repetitive-motion injuries in 1991. Last year, the corporation took some steps such as providing wrist and hand supports, and complaints dropped, he said.
Mr. Mellon strongly supports the exercise program. He gives workers on his 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift breaks of three to five minutes every two hours to do the exercises.
For the 17 to 19 workers on Mr. Mellon's shift, the exercises are mandatory. Other shift supervisors made them optional. But Mr. Mellon said that when production quotas from his shift are compared with quotas from other shifts, his workers hold their own despite the exercise breaks.
Three weeks into the program, it's too soon to know how effectively the exercises will combine with job rotations and wrist, hand and back supports to reduce repetitive-strain injuries. But some workers say they can feel a difference.
"At first it was a joke, but now they've found out it really helps," said Margie Sharer, 41, of Taneytown. She said her hands no longer ache or "go to sleep" as they used to, and she has been able to discard the wrist braces she had been wearing at work.
Dave Harbaugh, 42, of Hanover, Pa., leads one of the plant's two- to four-member work teams. Mr. Harbaugh has team members rotate tasks to allow them to use different sets of muscles and to make everyone proficient at all the tasks.
Mr. Harbaugh said that before the exercise program started, he felt stiffness in his neck and shoulders at the end of a shift. "When I go home at night now, I just feel a little tired," he said.
Some younger workers also see improvement. Kim Hull, 27, of Gettysburg, Pa., said she used to have "throbbing in my fingers" at the end of a shift. She said the throbbing and pains in her neck and shoulders have disappeared.
Supervisor Mellon said 20 years in the military taught him to believe in physical conditioning. He encouraged the workers to exercise at home, as he does. "This whole thing is dependent on a total physical program," he said.
Marada officials called on the Work BENCH -- an acronym for Biomechanics, Ergonomics, Needs, Capacity, Hardening -- to design the exercise program. The Work BENCH program is affiliated with Chesapeake Assessment and Treatment Center, a physical and occupational therapy service in the air business center.
"What they [Marada workers] do is a lot of repetitive work," said Kirk Myers, a vocational specialist who helped Chesapeake's physical therapists design the program. "If your neck's in the same position for eight hours, you want [exercises] to move it."
Mr. Myers said it took a week to 10 days to put the exercise program together, starting with a walk-through of the plant to observe the jobs. Work BENCH employees taught Marada workers eight to 10 exercises such as back bends, finger stretches and shoulder circles.
Mr. Myers said he started doing the same exercises he had taught the Marada workers and found relief from tension headaches that had bothered him. "I haven't had a headache in a long time," he said.
The exercise program at Marada II is a pilot program that may be extended to workers at the older plant across Route 97. "When we looked at this building, we knew there was going to be a lot of spot welding, a lot of repetitive motion," said Tracey Jo Kerr, Marada safety and training coordinator.
Mrs. Kerr said Marada plans a job analysis at its spot welding plant. The Work BENCH staff will look at every job in the plant for ergonomics -- how people move, stand and bend, and how the tasks are laid out -- then make recommendations on the best ways to accomplish the job without injury.
Mr. Mellon said some employees on his shift resisted the idea of a mandatory exercise program. "But now you talk to people and they appreciate it," he said. "You're developing people who understand that you care about them."