Continental AG, Germany: ergonomics and job design
Continental Corporation is a worldwide automotive supplier. It has four divisions – Passenger and Light Truck Tyres, Commercial Vehicle Tyres, Automotive Systems and ContiTech. The company manufactures, among other things, tyres for passenger cars, commercial vehicles and bikes, brake systems, and electronic air-suspension systems.
The Continental Group has a global workforce of around 80,000 employees, some 30,000 of whom work in Germany. Around 3,700 of the German employees work in the Stöcken plant, where the case study was carried out. Some 1,500 of these employees work in production (less than 10% women; average age, 40.1 years) and the rest in administration and in research and development. Around 16% of production workers are aged 50 years or over and more than 40% are aged 35–40 years. Most of the production workers are unskilled or semi-skilled.
As early as the 1980s, the company’s personnel policy addressed the issue of its ageing workforce by encouraging older employees to stay on, while simultaneously reducing staff through early retirement.
More recently, ageing has again become a priority of the company’s personnel policy agenda. Since late 2004, the research group – Demographic Challenges for Factories – has focused on the strategic alignment of the company’s personnel policy. The social dialogue in the company mainly relates to issues on working time and wages.
The original initiative
Continental’s ‘Age-Based Workplace Layout in Serial Tyre Production’ project was part of the Humanisation of the Working Life (HdA) programme, initiated by the federal government, and was completed in the mid-1980s.
The initiative aimed to reduce workplace stress through technical and layout improvements, and to implement organisational and individual measures to enable employees to continue working until they are older.
The HdA project was a great success. From the beginning of the project until the mid-1980s, the proportion of tyre-makers aged 55 years and over rose from 6.2% to 27.6%. Despite the ageing workforce, new, computerised machines improved production capacity, leading to higher output even on more labour-intensive shifts. However, the company-wide introduction of teamwork proved rather problematic because the conditions of the experimental initiative (use of familiar technologies, groups based on different age and performance levels, guaranteed wages) were not generally implemented. These problems led management to agree on more appropriate conditions for teamwork.
It became clear that improving workplace layout can reduce physical strain and that workplace conditions play an essential role in gaining acceptance for new forms of work organisation.
Good practice today
As early as the 1980s, Continental was concerned with keeping its older workers productive. In its project, Age-Based Workplace Layout in Serial Tyre Production, the company aimed to take age into account in the design of tyre-making workplaces. It found that this could largely be achieved through improved job-design measures.
Improving the working environment remains a central focus for the company. While the experimental project developed new, ergonomically improved machines and introduced the concept of teamwork, today’s measures aim to permanently improve existing workplaces, which are now staffed by fewer workers.
Demographic change (especially the ageing of the workforce), and the company’s objective of extending its employees’ working lives, underline the importance of organising workplaces and work demands, to allow employees to continue working in good health until the statutory retirement age.
In addition to a hazard’s assessment, which emphasises safety and ergonomics/work design, Continental uses a workplace register to examine the age-related suitability of its jobs. In this procedure, every workplace is classified according to one of the following three categories:
- age-based – under normal circumstances, workers can continue to work at these workplaces until they reach the statutory retirement age of 65 years;
- conditionally age-based – concrete changes must be made to the workplace or the work systems, for example the shift system, to allow older workers to continue;
- non age-based – these workplaces have adverse, long-term health effects and workers must usually switch to another job before reaching retirement age.
Dr. Sommer, the plant doctor at Stöcken, initiated this workplace register. Together with the production foremen, he evaluates the workplaces on site. To date, they have evaluated the production workplaces of 250 employees. The register shows that around 30% of workplaces are age-based and another 40% could become age-based through re-design of the layout. Most of the other jobs do not permit healthy working until the statutory retirement age.
The research group, Demographic Challenges for Factories, is currently tackling the issue of demographic change and its consequences for the company. The group consists of a mixture of 15 people who occupy different positions in the company, including a company physician, and employees from human resources management, production and industrial engineering. The group will determine the implications of demographic change for Continental and the measures that the company should take to deal with such change. Themes of particular significance in this respect are:
- work organisation and job design;
- management mindset;
- orientation programme for older employees;
- private retirement provisions;
- tariff-political initiatives.
- research group’s overall objective is to make recommendations for the process, to determine best practices and to develop key performance indicators.
The group, which enjoys the support of management and of Continental’s personnel committee, held its first meeting at the end of 2004. Although it is still in a conceptual phase, initial steps for implementing individual measures are planned for 2005.
Dr. Christoph Sommer, Company doctor,
Gernot Mansla, Head of Human Resource Management (Korbach site),
Company website: www.conti.de