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Baseball production and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome in Costa Rica

Posted Aug 26 2008 12:44pm

The game of baseball is a pure product of America . Every baseball used in the major leagues are hand-made. The men and women of Turrialba , Costa Rica handcraft millions of baseballs with the precision of a machine. The factory is in the middle of the country, in a small city called Turrialba.

Helge: I can imagine the working conditions. It would be safe in the long run to invest in working methods that improve the ergonomics in the factories. Take a look at the Rowlings blog .



The baseball workers typically make about $2,750 a year. A baseball player in the United States makes, on average, about $2,377,000, the Players Association informed 2004.

Helge: Globalization distributes manual work to new areas, but we should also think about the consequences.



It is hard work, and sometimes it messes up the worker's hands, warps their fingers and hurts their shoulders, a workers representative tells.

Helge: I know craftspeople and see how they work. Baseballs is a big industry. The low payment is one part of the problem, and occupational health is certainly and issue that can be improved.



According to New York Times, Dr. Carlos Guerrero, who worked at the Rawlings plant as a company doctor in 1998, and at the national health insurance clinic in Turrialba from 1991 to 1997, said a third of Rawlings workers developed carpal tunnel syndrome in those years .

Helge: That's a big number. Her is a statement from a blogger .



The syndrome, which causes pain and numbness in the hands, is common among assembly-line workers, typists and computer operators worldwide. Dr Carlos said, perhaps 90 percent of Rawlings workers experienced pain from their exacting work, from minor cuts to disabling aches.

Helge: The employees feel they don 't have a choice. Here is another blog .



The approximate 600 workers at the baseball factory in Turrialba are either "sewers" who stitch the cowhide covers onto the baseball's sphere, or they are assemblers and winders who are responsible for assembling the core's parts, made of two kinds of rubber and cork, and the winding of the ball's four different grades of yarn. Tho se who stitch are required to complete 108 stitches into the cowhide leather of each ball by hand. Each sewer must complete one ball every 15 minutes. They are required to reach a minimum quota of 156 balls a week.

But that's life, hard work is far better than no work at all, the employees tend to think. Many of the coffee and sugar cane plantations in Costa Rica have collapsed, done in by the forces of globalization.

Helge: Still, the conditions can be improved. I guess the same applies to assembly lines in China, India, South America, etc.



There is only one other factory in Turrialba, population 30,000. Without baseballs, life would be more like Nicaragua . The poor neighbor in the north has even less to offer.

Helge: The grim reality...but things can be done.



The baseball workers arrive at 6 a .m. and work until 5 p.m. Peak production pressures have pushed the day deep into the night.

Helge: No time to rest. Sounds bad.



Each can make four balls an hour, painstakingly hand-sewing 108 perfect stitches along the seams. They are paid by the umber of balls produced, and the income averages about 30 cents apiece.

Helge: Design and Craft sounds like great, but it's very hard wo rk indeed.



Rawlings Sporting Goods, which runs the factory, sells the balls for $14.99 at retail in the United States .

Helge: Manufacturing costs are just a small part of the total cost.



There's tremendous pressure to produce. The balls have to be exactly alike, perfect, and for this work people are paid $50 or $60 a week. A machine can't make them. All the balls produced by hand. However, they demand the precision and speed of a machine.'

Helge: Automation is not the solution, why not investing in working conditions?



Rawlings, founded in 1887, has had an exclusive contract to supply the major leagues with baseballs since 1977. According to year 2003 information, the Costa Rica plant makes about 2.2 million balls a year and sells about 1.8 million of them to the majors.

Helge: How many are working at the factories? I got the numbers: 600 employees.



Industry analysts say Rawlings sells about $35 million worth of baseballs a year, about one-third of the world market.

Helge: There are more than Rawlings.



Some past employees say they had to quit after developing repetitive stress injuries, and they have the medical records to prove it.

Helge: Mediracer and occupational health nurse to diagnose the employees.



The work deforms the craftsmen’s and women’s fingers and arms. They work for years at the plant until a doctor tells to stop sewing baseballs.

Helge: How about the treatment?



Typically, after years of hard work, a worker cannot make a fist, or touch the right palm with middle finger. The companies are often disputing that worker injuries are not caused by their labor.

Helge: Should we talk with the manufacturers?







Source: New York Times.



Costa Rica is located in Central America south of Nicaragua and north of Panama. It has a total land mass of approximately 19,700 square miles or 51,000 square kilometers.



Helge: If you like to know more about the baseball factory, "You fly to Costa Rica, home of active volcanoes, rain forests and the only factory in the world that makes major league baseballs. You drive through congested streets, past historic ruins, up mountains and through fog to reach Turrialba, the small town that is home to Rawlings de Costa Rica S.A. (secured area)."





A quiet town, Turrialba with its charming street corners and gorgeous surrounding sceneries is among the few places in Costa Rica with direct access to a volcano’s crater. From the summit of the volcano, you can on a clear day, see the Irazu, Poas and Barva volcanoes in the distance.



Among the most rarely visited national parks in Costa Rica, the Turrialba Volcano National Park is home of the active Turrialba Volcano, whose last major eruption occurred in 1866. The volcano itself is only 15 km northwest of town.



However, it is safe to climb, and though the facilities at the park are rather meager, it is still a worthwhile trip.






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