Realistic, Cost-Effective Ergonomics for Real People

Using a simpler approach to ergonomics and stressing design that fits actual workers can reduce costs and result in a safer, more productive workplace.

To reduce the costs associated with injuries and wasted effort, ergonomic principles should be applied to every possible work area to boost productivity and efficiency, and to improve human well-being. A cost-effective, practical approach to ergonomics is more hands-on than theoretical. The process involves anyone who can add value to get the most done with the lowest costs. This frugal, practical approach meshes well with the lean manufacturing philosophy that is in implementation in many workplaces.

Ergonomics, although a legitimate science, isn't rocket science. Ergonomics does not have to be complicated in every application. The downfall of the OSHA ergonomics regulation a few years ago was due to a number of factors, but public indignation over the paperwork burden it would have created must have been a main one. All that documentation would have taken up lots of time at the expense of the time available to fix anything in the workplace.

Regardless of the regulatory approach, keeping things simple accomplishes a couple of worthy goals. One benefit is that ergonomics becomes accessible to more people when it is simplified. A factory worker with a high school education can be fully involved in an ergonomics program if the ergonomic approach is practical. Lots of companies will tell you that the production people are their main asset in improving their work processes. The creativity and first-hand experience that the production team brings to the table can be priceless.

The second benefit of using a simpler ergonomic approach is that jobs are assessed in a time-efficient manner and conclusions are reached more quickly. Some technical articles on ergonomics stress analyses and hardly touch on practical changes. The authors seem to enjoy the compilation of objective data and crunching numbers into graphs and charts. However scientifically valid this process might be, what the end users need are ways to improve tasks, not pages of numbers. The time required to analyze a task is tremendously shorter using simple "rules of thumb" such as those described in a recent article in Occupational Hazards ("Applying Manual Material Handling Guidelines to Job Tasks," November 2004). If the results are valid, it doesn't matter whether the course of action used to reach the conclusions happened to be time-consuming or short and sweet.

Stressing Results

To be worthwhile, the end result must be real changes in the workplace based on application of ergonomic principles. Application is where we get the results application is where the value is added, not analysis. If we can get more results with less analysis, we have reduced activity that adds no value. Therefore, if our ergonomic approach is going to be lean, we should minimize the non-value-added part of the process as much as we can. (This approach discounts any side benefits that might come from a highly technical workplace analysis.)

Goals of our realistic, cost-effective approach to ergonomics should be to rely not only on engineers and managers, but also to encourage experienced production people to contribute their knowledge and ideas to the process; to keep the ergonomic process moving forward in a self-sustaining manner; and to eventually make the need for a re-invention process for existing equipment obsolescent. Main elements of our ergonomics program include:

1. Basic applied ergonomics training for everyone associated with production, perhaps tailored to the area where the ergo work will take place, light on theory and heavy on practical application. This training might only take a few hours if it is focused on the useful, practical applications, which is about all the time that a lot of companies will allow for a training class.

2. Assignment of specific job duties related to application of ergonomics to processes so everyone knows their ergonomic goals, with corresponding managerial emphasis, involvement and support to make it happen. This means management should develop and monitor some leading-indicator metrics for ergonomic process performance. (This is a subject in itself, so there isn't space to cover it in this article.)

3. Establishing simple, usable in-house ergonomic standards for new and re-installed processes and equipment to prevent needless redesign. Redesign and alteration of existing processes is a form of waste, so the long-term goal should be to reach a point where it will never be necessary to re-invent anything. Our standards should consider the full range of weights, shapes and sizes of our work force.

Coincidentally, these elements mesh very well with the philosophies of 5-S, Lean, Kaizen, etc. In practice, the line where ergonomics ends and these processes begin is a little blurry, but when we consider that everyone in an organization should contribute to improving performance in important operating parameters, it is unnecessary to make the distinction. The important point is to integrate ergonomic thinking into daily activities in a practical, cost-effective way. If it benefits our Lean efforts, that's a bonus.

Short, Simple and Sweet

The straightest route to application is usually the best. Everything needs to be short, simple and sweet (sweet meaning both relevant and applicable) to make it happen with least cost. Every meeting we have, every document we generate, every management presentation we prepare, costs both real time and real money. Like any other investment, the process we use to arrive at plans for changes had better be necessary and provide a positive return. The same rule applies to our plans for improvements. Realistically, ergonomic recommendations that are prohibitively expensive to implement won't go far in most companies. Very few companies can afford to throw money at their problems. Most ergonomists can suggest cheaper alternatives along with their first-choice, more expensive recommendations.

If your employees are going to participate in improving ergonomics, they will need to consider implementation costs as well. Employee training on controls for ergonomic stressors should include some practical, less-costly alternatives. For example, rather than buying dozens of costly manufactured glare screens for a computer room to reduce monitor glare, diffusers on overhead lighting can be replaced with egg-crate, lens-style, chrome-plated units that eliminate glare. Instead of buying a pallet lift to reduce bending while lifting, a short stack of idle pallets can substitute in some applications. Usually, for any problem there are both expensive and inexpensive answers. Of course, the less expensive answers usually lack flexibility, precision, aesthetics or some other desirable trait. Training should include ways to decide what will probably work and what won't.

Accommodating Real People

Another practical aspect that can help the effectiveness of ergonomic work concerns the basic premise of ergonomics. Ergonomics is often referred to as "fitting the job to the worker," but which worker? I have noticed that many ergonomic references seem to use an "ideal" model of the human body in their illustrations and recommendations. They use a line drawing of someone who looks like an Olympic swim team captain. Our "real" employees are often very different from these models. Knowing that we might have some overweight people working in our facilities at any time, we should not design exclusively for the skinny, athletic type. Instead, we should try to accommodate the beefier dimensions of larger people.

Dimensions such as recommended reach distance measured from sternum to fingertips are thrown off when the "real" person is 5 foot 8 and 300 pounds. A workstation designed with an ideal "safe" 12 inches of forward reach will in reality require a reach of more like 20 inches when we add 8 inches of extra belly. Reaching that far repetitively can lead to shoulder injuries and other problems, so we should take the actual dimensions of our people into account. The obstructions between an equipment operator and the farthest point where they must repetitively reach should be minimized based on the labor pool, not on a hypothetical line drawing in an ergonomics manual. The dimensions of real people must be taken into account.

The same thing applies to weight-bearing equipment like chairs and stools. Most workstation seating (office chairs, ergo stools, etc.) is designed for a maximum weight of 250 pounds, and more rarely, 270 pounds. Our country has a lot of people in it that weigh more than this. Although a chair may not immediately break when the weight rating is exceeded, obviously it is still overloaded and creating a dangerous situation. "Big people" chairs can be had with ratings of 350 to 450 pounds, and have the added bonus of wider seats, etc. for greater comfort. Floor mats also are more important for heavier people, who naturally bear more weight on their feet. Anthropometrically derived dimensions for Caucasians aren't necessarily the right ones to use for the many different nationalities, some of whom are quite short or tall, that now populate our workplaces.

Another consideration is age. Older workers are commonly seen these days as we redefine lifespans through medical technology and as financial imperatives keep people working longer and older than in the past. Age can bring with it various musculoskeletal issues that can decrease the safe human capacity for physical demands. Throw away the drawings of the perfect athletes and think real people of all sizes, shapes, weights and ages. Look at the real workplace and accommodate the workers.

Encourage Movement

Finally, people need to move around a little while they work. The human body just works better when not confined to a single posture. The static drawings and dimensions in ergonomic references seem to gloss over that reality. Leaving a little room to move around and try different postures will help. Footrests and folding armrests for sitting, standing and leaning; sit-stand stools; and chairs with armrests allow workers some postural options. Consider the realities of the labor pool in ergonomics team training classes to help them make workstations and work areas that are truly designed for the workers that use them.

The paradoxical goal of any improvement process should be to continually improve while making itself increasingly unnecessary through those improvements. A good set of ergonomic standards can help make that happen. There are no government ergonomic regulations in most states, but we can write some simple standards for our own use. These can help eliminate the ergonomics re-invention process in the future. If all new equipment installations meet our ergonomic standards from the start, there will be no need to redesign and alter it as we had to do with the existing equipment. In-house ergonomic standards can include simple rules such as "no hand lifting over 30 pounds, simple lifts only" and "no lifting or repetitive reaching with hands below knees or above shoulders: Optimum is elbow height."

Any company that wants to reach maximum efficiency, productivity, safety and quality needs to take steps so that everyone has the appropriate responsibilities, sufficient knowledge, motivation and resources necessary to apply ergonomic thinking to the process. If ergonomic changes can be accomplished simply, with the least possible bureaucracy and the greatest visible, tangible improvement, the cost-efficiency of the results is better.

Contributing Editor William H.Kincaid, P.E., CSP, is a vice president and senior loss control consultant for Lockton Insurance Cos. in St. Louis. Before becoming a consultant, he was an OSHA safety engineer specializing in ergonomics, "significant cases" and fatality inspections. He earned his B.S. in mechanical engineering from Washington University in St. Louis and is a registered professional engineer with 12 years' experience as a production manager. He writes regularly for our "Ergonomics News" e-newsletter.

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