Lean Manufacturing

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Lean Manufacturing Comes to China:
A Case Study of Its Impact on Workplace Health and Safety

Lean manufacturing, which establishes small production “cells,” or teams of workers, who complete an entire product from raw material processing through final assembly and shipment, increases health and safety hazards by mixing previously separated exposures to various chemicals (with possible additive and cumulative effects) and noise. The intensification of work leads to greater ergonomic and stress-related adverse health effects, as well as increased safety hazards. The standard industrial hygiene approach of anticipation, recognition, evaluation, and hazard control is applicable to lean operations. A focus on worker participation in identifying and solving problems is critical for reducing negative impacts. A key to worker safety in lean production operations is the development of informed, empowered, and active workers with the knowledge, skills, and opportunity to act in the workplace to eliminate or reduce hazards. Key words: China; lean manufacturing; worker participation; workplace health and safety protections. I N T J O C C U P E N V I R O N H E A LT H 2 0 0 7 ; 1 3 : 2 4 9 – 2 5 7


ver the last 15 years, China has become the “world’s factory floor,” producing an everlarger segment of the manufactured goods in the world economy. China posted a 10.7% growth in gross domestic product (GDP) in 2006, capping a decade of 10% annual growth rates. In 2005, China became the world’s fourth largest economy, after the United States, Japan, and Germany, with 5.4% of global GDP. But while manufacturing represents 17% of the U.S. GDP, it constitutes 41% of China’s GDP.1–3 Starting in 2003, China has become the world’s top producer of color televisions, washing machines, DVD players, cameras, refrigerators, microwave ovens, cell

Garrett Brown is Coordinator of the Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network, a volunteer network of 400 occupational health and safety professionals. Dara O’Rourke is Associate Professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, University of California at Berkeley. Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Garrett Brown, Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network, P.O. Box 124, Berkeley, CA 94701-0124, U.S.A.; e-mail: .

phones, computer monitors, motorcycles, toys, and rechargeable batteries, among other consumer products. Chinese exports to the United States accounted for 14.8% of all U.S. imports in 2005, including 24% of textile and apparel imports (rising to 50% in 2006), 26% of electrical machinery, 31% of metal tools and cutlery, and 43% of furniture and bedding.4–6 In 2006, China had an overall trade surplus with the world of $177.5 billion, up from $102 billion in 2005, including a $232.5 billion trade surplus with the United States. China now has foreign currency reserves (overwhelmingly U.S. dollars) of $1 trillion, equivalent to 40% of its entire $2.4 trillion economy.7–10 Since the early 1980s, China has received more than $600 billion in foreign direct investment (FDI), with $63 billion coming in 2006 alone. More than 50,000 U.S.-based corporations have operations in China, and an estimated 55% of China’s exports to the United States are actually intra-corporate transfers from directly owned or contracted factories.9,11–13 China, of course, plans to be more than just a lowcost production platform for transnational corporations. It is working to move up the value chain to design and engineer next-generation, higher-tech, higherfashion, and higher-value products. If, or perhaps when, this happens, China will “set the pace” not only for production costs, but also for the organization of production itself. China is also now working to transform its manufacturing base from traditional low-cost, labor-intensive “Fordist” production to higher-value, more flexible and more...
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