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Boeing plant opens therapy center

Onsite clinic treats workers who were injured on the job

EVERETT, Wash. (AP) — The Boeing Co. builds airplanes. David Sax rebuilds airplane builders.

Sax is the operations manager for Boeing's new physical therapy clinic at the Everett factory. In a workplace setting, the clinic treats Boeing workers who have been injured on the job.

It's more effective, and less expensive, than treatment at clinics elsewhere in the community, Sax and others in the industry say.

The program is a pilot for the "heritage Boeing" factories, those that were part of Boeing before the McDonnell Douglas merger. McDonnell Douglas had a similar program before the merger, and it still exists in those plants, Sax said.

If it works, Boeing will expand the program to its other Puget Sound facilities, he said.

The program was launched in September, after Boeing contracted with a company called Argosy to provide the service. But it didn't move into its permanent quarters, a 900-square-foot converted storage area, until last month.

Boeing manufacturing work is "a very aggressive, dynamic, difficult job," Sax said. Some of the work is repetitious, and some of it involves working in awkward positions.

"It's tough," Sax said. "It's building airplanes."

That leads to injuries. There are typically about 30 injured workers at the Everett plant at any one time, Sax said.

Most manufacturing injuries are to backs and shoulders, Sax said, but he didn't have specific information on the injuries.

Having an in-house physical-therapy program is a winning proposition for both the company and the injured workers, said Pete Behnke, the director of integrated work-site services for HealthSouth, which competes with Argosy nationally.

Having an on-site program means that treatment begins sooner, he said. And since it's easier for workers to get there, they're less likely to skip visits. As a result, they heal faster.

The company also benefits, "because when it's done in fewer visits, the total cost is less," Behnke said.

Sax agreed. With a clinic on-site, there are no delays in getting an injured worker to a physical therapist, he said. The first appointment can be scheduled for the day after an injury, maybe even the same day.

It's easier to prescribe specific treatments for a worker when you can walk out on a factory floor and see exactly what their jobs entail, Sax said. "I can see what a guy does when he rivets. I can see what he does when he climbs into a fuel cell."

Physical therapists in offices outside the factory don't have that opportunity, so they're basically making educated guesses at what kinds of treatments will work.

Being in the building makes it easier for shift workers to get treatment, Sax said. "Not just first shift people get hurt. So do third shifters."

And it also allows for closer coordination between the physical therapy staff and staff at Boeing's fitness center, Sax said. Once an injury heals, regular workouts can be prescribed to improve a worker's physical condition so that the injury is less likely to recur.

More and more companies are launching these kinds of programs for both manufacturing and office-bound employees, HealthSouth's Behnke said.

"They're growing in popularity, geometrically," he said. "In the last 10 years we've seen the most rapid growth, and I don't think we've seen the peak.