Ergonomics and pride of workmanship

From Wikipedia: “Workmanship refers to the quality of the work of an artisan or craftsman.” I had always thought of “workmanship” the domain of artists. A few years ago, I had an “aha moment.” I woke up after unexpected but thankfully minor surgery to find the doctor peering over me with a prideful smirk on his face. (Somehow, I found that odd.) He was taking great delight over how straight my incision was. He had started the incision planning to remove an offending body part from one place, and had found it to be somewhere else. Apparently, it’s quite tricky to extend an incision without making it “curvy”. So I will forever be marked with a nice, straight scar, and whenever I look at it, I will be reminded that “workmanship” can take many forms.

In industry, I am always impressed when an employee can explain the intricacy of what he is aiming for: just the right shine on the metal, or the complete absence of flecks so small I can’t see them. Pride in workmanship always reflects well on the employer; when I can see that an employee takes pride in his/her work, I know that the company is behind it. Similarly, I empathise when employees know what a good product looks like, but they aren’t provided with the tools or time to produce it. How frustrating to know that your work is not meeting standards!

I have also learned that perfection is not always the goal. For example, if you improve the detection of flaws in paint so that things that are not visible under normal lighting conditions are flagged as sub-standard, then the cost of repair inflates the cost of the product.

Inspection jobs often involve MSD (musculoskeletal disorder) hazards such as neck bending, reaching, or awkward wrist postures to manipulate parts in order to view all sides. As we improve the ergonomics of the task, we also improve the potential to identify defects. In general, this is a good thing! By tilting an object toward an operator to produce a perpendicular line of sight, s/he will be better able to see details, colour, and texture. Lighting, including amount, colour, and potential for glare, is often a factor in inspection. Mounting parts to allow better manipulation can reduce fatigue associated with prolonged gripping or awkward wrist, elbow, or shoulder postures.

Most of our clients call us because they have MSD problems – they want ergonomics to reduce the cost of compensation. We wish that clients would call us because they have quality problems, because often the same hazards create both MSD and quality issues. The beauty of the quality incentive is that it’s usually easier to quantify, and therefore easier to cost-justify an improvement. You probably have a really good idea of what scrap re-work, waste, and customer returns cost you (a better idea than what MSDs cost). And it might not be a big project to run a trial to see how much of an improvement you might expect if you reduce the reach, improve line of site, increase lighting, or mount the part in a fixture.

The next time someone sits down beside you at a party and begins to describe why the cookies with the filling squished out of the sides are “substandard”, pay attention. S/he probably has an interesting job!

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