TROY, Ohio - Employees called it the Finger Factory.
A company executive dubbed it the Bat Cave.
In a poorly managed plant, workers often get hurt. By that measure, Tube Products Corp.'s plant in Troy, Ohio, was a factory in crisis.
Ambulance runs to the plant were considered everyday events. Statistically, employees who stayed at least one year stood a 100 percent chance of getting injured.
Obsessed with the need to ship exhaust tubes to its main customer, General Motors, the Troy managers kept production lines running 24 hours a day.
Those lines spat out 26,000 defective parts for every million built. And they were shipped to a customer that sought 'pharmaceutical quality' - zero defects.
Eventually, Troy worked its way out of the crisis. However, it took a special GM team of a dozen managers, new ownership and a record fine by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to do so.
A FACTORY IN CRISIS
Interviews with current company managers, GM executives and a federal safety official confirm the portrayal of a factory in crisis.
But Connie Snyder did not know any of that when she showed up for her first day of work on Aug. 7, 1993. Her starting wage was just $5.80 per hour, and as a temporary employee she did not get medical benefits.
But the 46-year-old worker was relieved just to have a job. After five years of factory work at Piqua Engineering, she had been laid off. Following an unhappy three-month stint in a nearby seat-belt plant, Snyder resumed her search for a new employer.
After taking a dexterity test at Extra Help - a temporary employment agency - Snyder was assigned a job at Tube Products. When she reported for work that first day, her heart sank. The plant was noisy and hot, and the narrow aisles were clogged with workers, stacked parts and machinery.
'I thought it was the nastiest place I had ever been in,' Snyder recalled. 'It was smoky from the welding, and the floors were covered with oil spots.'
After their first day at Tube Products, some workers never came back. But Snyder needed the money. After a 30-minute training session, her foreman assigned her to a spot-welding machine. She spent two weeks at that work station, repeatedly burning her arms on the hot exhaust tubes.
SHE LOST A FINGER
After seven weeks and several job assignments, Snyder was stationed at a swedger, a stamping machine that shapes the end of the exhaust pipes. The operator was supposed to insert the pipe, hit a foot pedal, then remove the pipe.
The foreman asked an hourly employee to show Snyder how to run the machine. Snyder was nervous - she had heard that another worker had mangled her fingers in it a year earlier.
The worker told her to hold the pipe steady in the swedger. As the machine clamped down on the pipe, it caught her glove.
'I jerked my hand loose,' she said. 'I saw blood and started screaming. I didn't know what had happened. I didn't know I'd lost my finger. My index finger was laying in the damn glove.'
Her co-worker panicked and ran out of the building. The foreman rushed over and grabbed Snyder, wrapping her hand in a work shirt. An ambulance took her to the hospital, where she spent two days.
Snyder sued. Her attorney, James Hochman, noted that fully 80 percent of the Troy work force were contract employees.
A BAD REPUTATION
After buying Tube Products in 1988, the new owners successfully pushed for the decertification of UAW Local 128 and relied on temporary employment agencies to provide workers. By paying contract employees just $5.80 per hour, Tube Products could not compete with other manufacturers for the best workers.
Ill-trained, underpaid and badly led, the contract employees had a weekly turnover rate approaching 25 percent. At that rate, Troy got the equivalent of a new work force every month.
Former Tube Products President Jim Bryson declined several requests by Automotive News to discuss the Snyder lawsuit, although Everett Telljohann - the company's former CFO and one of seven former owners - did respond to questions.
Troy's safety record 'certainly wasn't good,' Telljohann said. 'Did we deserve the kind of fines they levied? Probably not. OSHA made an example of us.'
However, Bryson's court deposition in the Snyder lawsuit in 1995 partially confirms the plaintiff's version of events.
$1.2 MILLION TO SNYDER
In his deposition, Bryson testified that he preferred to hire 'unemployables' such as ex-convicts, plus a smattering of physically and mentally handicapped workers.
Snyder fit none of those categories, although a David Phipps - an ex-convict represented by Hochman - won $207,000 in damages after his left hand was mangled by a machine. Snyder did better, winning $1.2 million in damages and attorney fees in a 1996 jury verdict.
The safety issue gained steam in 1994 when Tube Products drew OSHA's attention.
The agency had been tipped off by a local hospital that was treating up to half a dozen injured workers daily.
NEW OWNER SWEEPS UP
In February 1995, OSHA levied a $1.3 million fine against Tube Products. At the time, it was the largest fine ever imposed on an Ohio company. The agency eventually reduced it to $800,000.
On Feb. 23, 1996, the owners of Tube Products sold the company to the Questor Partners Fund, an investors' group based in Southfield, Mich.
Questor cleaned house. The firm offered the top post at Tube Products to Terry Bernander, a former executive at Walker Manufacturing Co., a rival manufacturer of exhaust systems.
After inspecting the Troy plant in May 1996, he nearly refused the job.
'The plant was in total disarray,' said Bernander. 'I felt very bad for the employees. I felt they deserved better. I did not want to run a sweat shop.'
Bernander took the job, but only after gaining assurances that he would have complete control of Tube Products. First, Bernander eliminated the company's revolving-door employment policy.
Tube Products raised its starting wage to $8 per hour, with a $1-per-hour raise after one year. The average worker earns $10.75 per hour. The company offered a medical plan, a 401-k savings plan and vacation pay. The Troy plant also got a facelift, with new lighting, improved ventilation, a new paint job and safety equipment for the machinery. With a stable, trained work force, the plant's injury rate declined 86 percent within a year.
The one-time Finger Factory has not suffered a lost-time injury in the past 12 months, according to Bernander.
The turnaround brought an additional payoff: The defect rate declined from an astronomical 26,000 parts per million to 30 parts per million. That improvement probably saved Tube Products, since GM was not willing to accept components of such poor quality. Moreover, one of Tube Products' toughest critics has praised the new managers for the turnaround.
'I could not believe the difference in attitude of employees,' said Bill Murphy, director of OSHA's regional office in Cincinnati, 'Employees were coming up to me to tell me how much better it was. I was amazed. Now, they are one of the best-run companies.'