How an ergonomist can save you money

Brick Layer

I suspect that few things are more frustrating to an engineer than fielding complaints from workers on a brand new line. An engineer or project manager who has just spent months attending to the many, many, many details of a new project may not be receptive to the type of “constructive” feedback that workers have to offer at that point. How can an ergonomist help?

If we are brought in early enough, and kept involved as the project progresses, we can help an engineer to optimize the design of heights, reaches, and clearances. While these three design guidelines apply to virtually every design, we also apply guidelines for force, carts, controls, displays, mechanical assists, containers, floor surfaces, lighting, work flow, and more. A workstation that has been designed with the worker in mind will lead to fewer complaints after production starts. But more than that, the process can also save money.

A typical ergo design review starts with a meeting between the ergonomist and the engineer or project manager, to review the drawings and ensure a full understanding of the project. The first step is to identify the “human-machine interfaces” (HMIs) from a layout of the design – where will PEOPLE interact with equipment? The ergonomist then needs to understand the physical and cognitive demands of each of these HMIs. For example:

  • What does the task look like, step by step?
  • What is the worker handling, and how often?
  • hat is the worker looking at?
  • How will performance be measured?
  • What type of errors can be made?

If the design is based on an existing production line, it’s very helpful for the ergonomist to study the existing line, to get a better understanding of the jobs. But if it’s a new design, she will need to “imagine” the job, based on drawings and sample products, cartons, etc.

We use our own ergo design guidelines to evaluate a design – these have been gathered over the past 20 years, and they are available to those who attend our “Ergo Design” training (offered next on October 20th, or on-site at your facility any time). The guidelines cover a variety of design parameters, and they aim to accommodate a majority of the population (95%) – if the design meets all of the criteria, we would not expect the job to present significant MSD hazards. If it does not meet the criteria, then the ergonomist would present some recommendations. We keep the design guidelines current by integrating new research, and we use our on-site experiences to create new guidelines when we recognize an issue that could have been avoided through better design. If you don’t have our ergo design guidelines other collection are available, including the new CSA guidelines  and text books such as Kodak’s Ergonomic Design for People at Work.

Sometimes, by the time we get involved, the project has progressed to a point where the engineer doesn’t want to invest any capitol into “ergo”, and s/he will ask us if the recommendation is “necessary”. In this case, we would complete a risk assessment, essentially anticipating the demands of the job, and evaluating whether these demands would create a high risk of injury. If the design does not accommodate 75% of the population, then we’d advise that it should be changed.

Another design challenge is that not all of the design parameters are established from the beginning. This is why it’s important to keep the ergonomist involved throughout the project. Safety guarding, for example, is often added quite late in the project. Guarding can increase forward reach, and thereby increase the risk of shoulder MSDs. We would never suggest compromising safety; an ergonomist working collaboratively with safety and engineering from start to finish can result in a safe, ergonomic, design.

How does all of this save money? Let’s say, as a ballpark, that it costs $1500 to hire an ergonomist to complete a design review for one new workstation. That’s probably less than it would cost to hire the ergonomist to assess the job after it is installed.

The ergonomist might make these (example) recommendations, based on the drawings and information provided:

  1. Raise the line by 15 cm to avoid stooping.
  2. Use a diverter to bring components on the moving belt to within 30 cm of the worker’s side of the table.
  3. Use a 60 cm high stand to raise the bin of components.
  4. Position the top of the display screen at a height of 160 cm.

Implementing these recommendations would cost very little at the design stage – perhaps a few hours of engineering time, a few hours of maintenance time, and a few hundred dollars in materials. But if you wait until after the line has been running, the cost of significant down time would be added to these costs. Installations would have to be done on weekends or during shutdowns, and sign offs would be required. Further, in the interim, your company would experience the “costs” associated with poor ergonomics:

  • People would be bending and reaching to parts on the conveyor, and bending to retrieve components from the bin, potentially incurring injury costs. (Even one such injury might have cost-justified implementation! And even if these workers don’t report a work-related injury, the job may be associated with higher absenteeism, or job turnover as people attempt to post out of it, to an easier job.)
  • Employees might not be able to keep up with the work pace, because the reach is unnecessarily long. (If this is a production bottleneck, then you’re losing productivity at several stations while this person attempts to keep up…more wasted money!)
  • The workers may not have a clear line of sight to the screen, resulting in errors. (Several incorrect customer orders, with the associated cost of returns or re-work, might similarly justify the implementation.)

How does your company select or design new equipment? Is ergonomics involved at every step of the way? Or have I prompted you to check into it? If you discover that ergonomics falls by the wayside when designing new workstations (or re-designing old ones) and you’re not sure how to start, give us a call or check out our design review services on our website, or just contact or 519-623-7733, to start a discussion. We’d be happy to help!

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