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Harley-Davidson pulls the plug on factory workers' music

| Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

The music is gone at Harley-Davidson.

Last week, hundreds of the iconic motorcycle manufacturer's employees learned through a memo that their radios and music being piped onto the factory floor would be kaput by Wednesday — part of a continuous effort to improve safety.

No headphones. No headbanging. No rock 'n' roll.

Just the sound of motorcycles being made. It's the sweet sound of productivity for a Fortune 500 firm whose earnings have made a comeback since an organization-wide restructuring began in 2009.

It wasn't one incident in particular that made them “stop the music,” as singer Rihanna says.

“It's a distraction,” said Maripat Blankenheim, director of external communications for Harley. “It's really important for people — no matter what they do — to be focused on what they do.”

The memo, authored by John Dansby II, vice president for manufacturing, reflects that mantra.

“As you are aware, it is imperative that we improve our safety and first-time quality performance,” he writes. “Too many distractions and potential hazards still exist in the workplace that impact our performance every day.”

Local manufacturing executives say music — a decades-old factory staple — has long been a hot-button issue in a world often dominated by monotonous tasks.

In the conflict, some companies find democracy.

Troy Billet, president of Billet Industries in Hellam Township, said music has been cause for conflict throughout the family-owned company's 40-year history.

One year, he sat all the employees down.

“They took a vote. In the morning, they'd listen to country music,” Billet said. “In the afternoons, they'd listen to rock 'n' roll.” Today, that rule no longer applies.

The factory's 18 employees are allowed to use personal radios at their workstations, where they fabricate machine parts. About 16 take advantage of the privilege.

Some days, Billet hears them all. They blare in unison, echoing through the plant and into the walls of his office.

“They're trying to compete with each other's radios, because everyone wants their music to be louder,” he said “... There's a case to be made for not having music on a plant floor.”

At BAE Systems, CD players and radios are allowed in manufacturing areas, “provided the volume is kept low enough so it doesn't interfere with conversations or impede anyone from hearing a fire alarm or other warning device,” said Randy Coble, spokesman for the defense contractor's West Manchester Township site.

There, about 1,250 employees also must agree on the type of music played.

At many plants, headphones aren't allowed.

They can get tangled in a machine, said Stephen Tansey, president and COO of York Container.

At the Springettsbury Township plant, classic rock — “nothing exciting,” Tansey said — is piped in for the factory's 220 employees to hear.

Federal and state safety regulations don't say much about music in plants, said Brad Kreidler, a field agent for manufacturing resource group MANTEC.

If you're “putting a screw and a nut on a couple of wires and moving something down the row,” he said, there's no real risk to safety.

Lots of robotics and moving parts or chemicals and scalding temperatures? That's a different story.

“The hard part is saying, ‘Well, this area is not a very hazardous complex, so we can have radios playing here, but we can't have radios in this part of the building because of this particular process,' ” he said.

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