Health at work: old and new risk factors in FCA plants before and after the pandemic

Publication Type:

Conference Paper


Gerpisa colloquium, Paris (2021)


Soon after the Coronavirus outbreak in 2020, the debate on health and safety at work temporarily regained momentum, especially in Italy, where a series of workers’ protests and strikes highlighted the lack of adequate protection against the virus in a wide range of workplaces and economic sectors (Tassinari et al., 2020). However, concerns over workers’ health and safety had been raised particularly in the automotive industry even before the pandemic, due to the increasing tendency of the main carmakers to adopt motion time systems that combine the promise of improving workstations ergonomics with an overall increase in employees’ workloads (Tuccino, 2013), thus generating risks in terms of injuries, occupational diseases and both mental and physical distress.
Based on a research project carried out in 2017 and 2018 by Fondazione Giuseppe Di Vittorio and Fondazione Claudio Sabattini with the aim of analyzing working conditions in the Italian plants of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) group, the paper shows how the introduction of technological and organizational innovations such as the World Class Manufacturing (WCM) production system and the ERGO-UAS motion time system affected workers’ health and safety.
The results, coming from the analysis of 170 semistructured interviews and more than 7,000 questionnaires administered to FCA employees in 54 plants, show that almost 4 workers out of 5 on the assembly lines experienced a significant intensification of workloads, associated with the worsening of mental and physical distress. Contrary to the interpretation given by Pero (2015) in a previous study on the adoption of lean production systems in FCA plants and its effects on working conditions, which considers workers’ stress as the outcome not only of the increase in workloads, but also of the higher cognitive engagement required by the introduction of suggestion mechanisms and other continuous improvement tools, it turns out that another important factor for the explanation of distress is the disciplinary role of the psychological pressure exerted by foremen and the whole hierarchical structure to get work done. In workers’ view, this is also one of the main risk factors for injuries, together with the lack of investments in new productive tools and machinery, the reduction of time for executing tasks and – in line with other studies on lean production (Mehri, 2006) - the layout of workstations, with less room left for workers’ movement.
Confronted with the pandemic and the related need to adopt measures aimed at guaranteeing a minimum amount of distance between workers and avoiding overcrowding in workplaces, lean production systems seem to be intrinsically and structurally unable to cope with the Covid-19 emergency, because of their inherent tension towards the limitation of workspace and the full saturation of cycle time along the assembly line (Gaddi, 2020). On the contrary, the results coming from the research on FCA plants and the current situation require workers to develop new bargaining skills and master the tools used to determine workloads and work pace, with the final goal of protecting health from the old and new risks associated with the organization of work.


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