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October 19, 2012
A new perspective on ergonomics

Including common mistakes and ways to save money

There’s an important new trend in ergonomics. It’s a move away from a strict emphasis on reductions in musculoskeletal injuries and toward the diverse business benefits that come from ergonomic changes.

The shift is subtle, but significant, according to those consulted for this white paper . One is a veteran ergonomics expert who helped draft OSHA’s meatpacking guidelines in the 1990s. The other is the author of a new book that addresses common mistakes companies make in their approach to ergonomics.  

WALT ROSTYKUS: HUMANTECH

Walt Rostykus advises clients to integrate ergonomics into their safety management systems and to make ergonomics a component in the processes they use to manage quality or continuous improvement.

Rostykus is a vice president at Humantech, a leading ergonomics consulting company headquartered in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

 “We’ve learned from benchmarking studies that companies attribute from 40 percent to 75 percent of their reportable workplace injuries to poor ergonomic conditions,” Rostykus notes. “It’s emerging as one of the more prevalent sources of loss as people get a handle on risks like burns and lacerations.”

According to Rostykus, business success—not compliance—is the chief reason for ergonomic improvements. Companies that invest in ergonomics these days do so to keep people well and working, prevent losses, and because it’s the right thing to do.

For many, “it’s also a component in the formula for managing productivity and the quality of businesses and services,” says Rostykus. “You can’t manage a business well if the tasks don’t fit the capability of the people.” Proper alignment of workers with tools and systems removes barriers to performance, a component in overall business success.

Engineers and designers can do a lot to make workplaces more comfortable, but only if they are given direction by building and business owners. Despite some positive change, ergonomics is still often considered an “add-on” after construction is complete.

Learn from others’ mistakes

Rostykus has written an eBook titled Five Mistakes Companies Make with Ergonomics. The 16-page publication can be downloaded at no cost from the Humantech website at www.Humantech.com.

The five mistakes were identified through a series of benchmarking studies involving a wide variety of industries and programs. Says Rostykus, “We found that those that performed the best had learned from these mistakes.” An Advisor editor spoke with him to learn about the mistakes and how to avoid them.

Mistake #1: focusing on the wrong goal. Despite the preponderance of articles and blogs on the need to look at leading, not lagging, indicators, CEOs are still most interested in injury and illness rates. However, says Rostykus, that “is like predicting the outcome of a baseball game after it’s been played, which is too late!”

If the end result is to reduce injuries and illnesses, the focus should be on reducing exposures and risks like awkward postures, high force, and duration/frequency. That goal, and the tasks required to achieve it, should be commonly understood, from the process engineer who brings in a new press, to the individual working on a production line, to the employee at the loading dock. “Everybody knows how they fit into the equation.”

Mistake #2: an unsustainable approach. Good ergonomics is not about a laundry list of technical requirements. That’s an antiquated approach that is not sustainable long term. Rostykus recommends managing ergonomics using familiar systems, such as continuous improvement, that have been used to achieve other improvements.

Mistake #3: a narrow view. Viewing ergonomics strictly as a safety discipline stops companies from achieving the full benefit of incorporating workplace improvements. For a long time, ergonomics has been associated strictly with safety. It can, however, lead to valuable changes like eliminating unnecessary motion that slows down cycle time, improving the quality of products, and reducing quality defects, which leads to fewer shipping delays.

Mistake #4: ineffective and inconsistent tools. “It’s amazing how organizations focus on comparing their exposure to a known threshold like TLVs [threshold limit values] for chemicals,” says Rostykus. “But when it comes to ergonomics, they are subjective.” He recommends using subjective tools based on valid data.  

One company established a lifting limit of 68 pounds. When he asked why that limit was chosen, Rostykus was told that 68 pounds was the weight of its heaviest product. The number was based on organizational convenience, not human comfort or safety.

“I view that as an invalid tool,” he notes. He says assessments are often too subjective, citing the example of one that read, “People in the shipping department are working with a bent back, which needs to be addressed.” When tools are objective and consistent, everyone is working in tandem to solve the problem.

Mistake #5: failure to check. Humantech research found that many companies make ergonomic improvements and check them off a list without any effort to assess their impact. Comparing conditions before and after the change is essential, whether it’s a tactical or systems-based improvement.

DAN MACLEOD: PROFESSIONAL ERGONOMIST/CONSULTANT

Dan MacLeod is a veteran ergonomics consultant who has assisted many large companies. He is currently working with Lockheed Martin to design a 1.5-mile-long production line for the Pentagon’s new F-35 stealth fighter in Forth Worth, Texas.

MacLeod blames himself and his colleagues for the fact that there is still considerable confusion about what ergonomics is. He and other pioneers in the field in the 1970s and 1980s promoted the discipline as a way to prevent injuries.

 “To some extent, I think we oversold the injuries part.” While the early ergonomists recognized that some of the ergonomic changes would contribute to quality and other improvements, that message was not communicated.

Like Humantech’s Dan Rostykus, MacLeod says more companies are beginning to view ergonomics as an overall business tool. He has catalogued many ways ergonomics can save money. You may wish to integrate some of his ideas in your next budget request or as part of a management training session on the value of ergonomics.

Dramatic reductions in workers’ compensation costs. Good ergonomics programs cut comp costs an average of 60 percent and up to 90 percent in some cases. MacLeod points to one manufacturer whose costs dropped 25 cents per hour per employee after 3 years of an ergonomics program.

Improved productivity. According to MacLeod, ergonomic improvements commonly raise productivity by 10 percent to 15 percent. One study showed a 25 percent boost in output at a site where computer workstations were outfitted with ergonomic furniture and other improvements.

Fewer mistakes and less scrap. People working in awkward and uncomfortable postures commonly make mistakes. At one business, a $400 mechanical device eliminated a $6,000 annual loss in scrap caused by employees who had been unable to consistently perform a demanding physical task. The return on investment was 1,500 percent.

Improved efficiency due to better working posture. Working in awkward postures can reduce efficiency in ways that ergonomics can help remedy. Reduced strength means it takes longer to complete a task. Less accurate motions lead to mistakes and work slowdown.

Improved efficiency due to less exertion. The more exertion required for a task, the longer it can take. MacLeod offers the example of a stuck jam jar lid—opening it takes more time and more effort than one that is not stuck. Similarly, muscles under a heavy load are harder to move with precision, and less accurate movements affect quality and efficiency.

Improved efficiency due to fewer motions. Repetitive motions are wasteful. A good ergonomic analysis helps identify opportunities to reduce or eliminate the number of steps required. Repetitive motion is a source of injuries and a red flag for wasteful work.

Improved efficiency with better heights and reaches. Stopping in the middle of a task to fetch a stool or remove an obstruction is inefficient. Also, working at an inappropriate height or long reach causes a worker to assume an awkward posture; productivity is lost for that reason as well.

Less fatigue. Fatigue, including that resulting from working in a static posture, has long been known to result in lost productivity. Ergonomics specialists seek the causes of excessive fatigue and ways to reduce or eliminate them.

Reduced maintenance downtime. The tools and techniques of workplace ergonomics can be applied to maintenance tasks. For example, providing clearance, reducing exertion, and reducing motions can speed up the time in which operations can be brought back online.

Protecting human resources. Especially in small organizations, the loss of a key person due to an ergonomics injury can be a critical problem. Even if a replacement can be found, that person’s skill level may not be the same, and he or she may require training.

Identifying waste. An ergonomics task analysis looks at operations step by step. By evaluating elements such as motion and exertion, it is possible to identify and eliminate wasted activity.

Valuable insights. Any new perspective on the workplace helps leaders identify ways to improve and motivates them to make improvements that result in higher profits.

Offset the limitations of an aging workforce. Making ergonomic adaptations can help older workers be as productive as younger ones, if not more so. Many organizations are finding that accommodations made for older workers, such as antifatigue mats and height-adjustable work surfaces, benefit employees of all ages.

Reduced turnover. Employees working in uncomfortable environments that cause them pain are more likely to leave and seek other employment. Replacing them is expensive and can damage a company’s reputation.

Reduced absenteeism. Absenteeism can be an indicator of the early stages of a musculoskeletal disorder. Says MacLeod, “Work that hurts doesn’t exactly encourage people to come [in] every day.”

Improved morale. Frustration, aches, and pains caused by inadequately designed jobs and equipment are likely to affect morale. Little things—like a hard edge on a piece of equipment an employee uses every day that goes unfixed—can create dissatisfaction. Once identified by an ergonomic assessment, these can often be fixed cheaply.

More engaged employees. If you are looking for ways to improve employee involvement, ergonomics is a good place to start. The improvements directly benefit the employees, and this serves as positive reinforcement for participation.

Improved labor relations. Ergonomics issues can be a source of positive labor/management problem solving. Redesigning the workplace using ergonomic principles provides an opportunity for collaboration that extends to other aspects of the work environment.

Resurgence of “methods engineering.” Methods engineering is an old business efficiency technique that seeks to reduce costs and optimize reliability by analyzing task performance. An example is the classic time and motion studies of the 1950s. Ergonomics brings these ideas back in a valuable “new and improved format,” says MacLeod.

Linking to LEAN. Ergonomics, with its emphasis on waste reduction, can help businesses advance their LEAN programs. LEAN is a business improvement practice that focuses on creating more value with fewer resources.

Proven practice. MacLeod says humans have been “doing ergonomics” for thousands of years and points to examples like the stone ax and the wheel. Businesses can become more successful by relying on an approach that’s been successful for thousands of years.

Keep regulators at bay. OSHA has issued some historically high fines for ergonomics violations. MacLeod puts this at the bottom of his list because he believes enforcement should be the least important motivation for investing in ergonomics. 

Food for thought … and action

Ergonomics experts Walt Rostykus and Dan MacLeod are on the leading edge of a shift in ergonomics. They believe its value lies beyond the potential to reduce musculoskeletal injuries, with potential benefit for many business operations.

Does that reflect your experience? Would you be likely to use these ideas to “sell” ergonomics to your top leadership? Let us know how you’re using/benefitting from ergonomics at equayle@blr.com.  

Ergo success stories from the U.S. Navy

The military is one of the most complex and diverse of all workplaces. Like other service branches, the U.S. Navy (USN) has turned to ergonomics to help reduce risk and improve performance.

According to Mark Geiger, a Navy occupational safety and health specialist, the goal is to engineer ergonomics into equipment and processes rather than perform costly retrofits after the fact.

As private sector employers know, that takes a concerted effort, including by those like Geiger who are responsible for acquiring new systems, equipment, ships, aircraft, etc.

Following is a sampling of the Navy’s ergonomic success stories.

Installing cables on ships is hard and sometimes hazardous work. According to Geiger, it’s a matter of “pushing cables through impossible spaces.” The job is difficult, and workers often suffer minor injuries as they squeeze through tight spaces.

A successful solution was based on a systems engineering approach. Now, before the cable team does its work, an advance team sets up a series of pulleys and other devices to make the process easier.

Instead of a crew of 40, about half that many people do the task with greater ease and fewer injuries.

Another best practice involved the Cherry Point Naval Air Depot in North Carolina, where staff members move aircraft wings and other huge pieces of equipment. In the past, says Geiger, parts would be placed on a cart pushed by 8 or 10 people with several more spotting to make sure the path was clear.

In order to save time and effort, a cart caddy was introduced. This is a small powered truck under one individual’s manual control. Geiger says it’s a good example of an ergonomic fix that also improved efficiency.

An innovation currently in the pilot stages is a vest worn by those who perform aircraft maintenance. The job requires working in tight, enclosed spaces close to the plane’s “ribs.” Made of aluminum, the ribs give the wing and other parts of a plane structural integrity. When a human body intersects with the ribs, the results can be painful.

The protective vest features semi-rigid plastic material that runs up and down the garment. It protects workers from contact with the airplane metal while permitting them to operate more comfortably.

The Navy is also involved in an initiative to reduce hand/arm vibration at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. The project targets welders, who use high-vibration grinders to remove paint and other materials from the welding surface.

The Navy has developed an alternative to the grinders known as a needle scaler (or needle gun). It features several needles that oscillate under pneumatic pressure to pound off paint and corrosion with much less vibration.

The Navy is working with the U.S. Department of Defense and the General Services Administration (GSA) to encourage purchasing of the needle scaler and other equipment that vibrates less and is quieter than traditional options.

Geiger says the Navy will continue to work on other ergonomic innovations in an effort to influence the marketplace, increase awareness, reduce injuries, and improve performance.

With pressure to pay attention to equipment life-cycle costs, the long-term challenge is to design ergonomics into a product or process from the beginning.

Learn more about the Navy’s worker protection programs at the website of the Naval Safety Center.

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