Add Value with a Comprehensive Approach to Ergonomics

Feb. 18, 2004
Taking an active role in improving operations through ergonomics keeps plants more competitive and helps ensure that safety professionals stay employed.

by William H. Kincaid, P.E., CSP

The International Ergonomics Association says ergonomics exists to "optimize human well-being and overall system performance".

The efficiency, productivity, competitiveness and safety of our manufacturing plants can be much better with enough attention to ergonomics. Safety professionals, sometimes hindered by a lack of management commitment and interest, can use a comprehensive approach to ergonomics as a way to add interest and perceptible value to their ergonomics efforts. This makes them a more valuable, integral part of the production team.

That might be counter to the impression that workers have of safety professionals. Recently, after I presented a short, basic ergo class, a factory worker who had attended left behind a complaint. My class covered the great increases in efficiency and productivity that ergonomics offers, as well as injury prevention. She said that I shouldn't talk about using ergonomics to improve efficiency, and that I should only discuss injury prevention. She reasoned that my technique of selling my suggestions to the mixed group of engineers, supervisors and hourly workers made ergonomics sound like a way to make more money for the company. She was right on that point, and I had to agree. But is it wrong for a safety professional to help contribute to the bottom line?

Very little that is intended to have no return gets done in an industrial plant. Everyone who works for a company should care about the company's revenues and profits. Anyone who has been involved in a plant closing, unfortunately a common event for a lot of workers lately, can attest that profitability is a good thing. Very seldom will we ever see a profitable plant closed.

Over the past 15 years ergonomics has become closely associated with prevention of musculoskeletal injuries, possibly to the detriment of this very valuable science. OSHA is largely responsible for this association because OSHA gets substantial media attention for its ergonomics efforts and focuses only on the injury prevention aspects of ergonomics. Our safety and health industry publications repeat this theme and it almost seems heretical for a safety person to promote cost savings as sole justification for an ergonomic change.

This ignores the main benefits of ergonomic improvements, and makes ergonomics harder to sell to management. In my own ergonomics work, I prefer to look at ergonomics with a comprehensive approach. My goal is to improve the work process with ergonomics. Injury prevention then naturally occurs as a side effect.

Productivity and Efficiency

Some of the best ergo improvements make work easier for the worker, reduce unnecessary motions and eliminate steps, which certainly justifies these changes from a production-related perspective. In practice, good ergonomic work provides productivity and efficiency benefits as well as injury prevention. Using CTD cases in a particular job as a trigger for an ergo evaluation is fine, but should not be the only reason for starting an ergo project.

Ruth A. Meisner, VAVE Engineer (Value Analysis/Value Engineering) at Dura Automotive Systems in Moberly, Mo., recognizes it is important to promote ergonomics as a critical part of an overall process improvement. Ruth advocates a production support role, stating that "Involving ergonomics in the manufacturing process is one of the best value-added activities you can use... there is no way to meet the goals of lean manufacturing without attention to ergonomics throughout the entire process, from how we design our product to how we set up a production line to how we move parts to an operator." The improvements in this plant have been phenomenal, and have involved the hourly employees, engineers, plant management at all levels and me, as the ergonomics consultant.

In my work as a corporate safety director and as a consultant for Lockton Companies, I have recommended many inexpensive, simple process improvements that resulted in substantial savings. The continued observation of the success of seemingly small ideas has made me into a true believer, not just in ergonomics but in the ability of American firms to beat the global competition.

Ergonomics Challenge

At OSHA, I was trained to apply ergonomics mainly to reduce the chances of injuries. Later, I took a new job in manufacturing as a safety director. In the plant, my belief in the greater potential began with my first big ergonomics challenge. Hand-wrapping of foil rolls in a foil embossing operation had recently been replaced by an automatic wrapping machine. This machine cost about $100,000 and expectations for its productivity were correspondingly high. Unfortunately, it quickly failed to live up to the engineer's estimates and became a topic of great interest at the plant production meetings.

It was not really the machine's fault that production fell short, because the machine operator could not load the machine as fast as it could wrap. Various ideas were tried such as adding a second person to load the machine. It still fell short of the theoretical production. However, no injuries had been reported in the few weeks of operation.

The department supervisor decided to ask for a third person at the machine. The hands-on company president, who had a great technical ability, was not satisfied to throw more people at the problem. The meeting got tense as the attendees began to argue about whose fault it was and how to fix the problem.

Although I usually was not invited to production meetings, I had been asked to attend this one to discuss an unrelated question. Not having been invited to participate in setting up the operation, the machine was new to me.

When I observed the operation, I saw that each operator had a simple but strenuous job. The operator only had to pick up the rolls from a box on the floor and carry them 5 feet to the conveyor then place each roll into a conveyor slot. The rolls all had to be set into the slots with one particular wrap direction to prevent the foil from being uncoiled during wrapping.

It was clear that walking 5 feet to the box, bending into it to pick up some rolls, standing up, checking wrap direction and walking back 5 feet to the conveyor were non-productive, stressful efforts. However, nobody had gotten hurt doing it yet. Maybe the rolls were light enough that the extreme postures were not overstressing the back muscles to the point of failure.

I suggested trying to eliminate the non-productive steps to increase the proportion of the "value-added" work elements. My idea was to build waist-high carts that could be loaded from the foil embossers and pushed up to the conveyor for unloading.

The idea was met with mostly surprised looks, and a few dismissive comments from the production group, except from one key person who instantly understood that the idea might be what he was looking for: the company president.

We found the next day that replacing the box on the floor with a prototype cart improved productivity by 400 percent. Staffing levels remained at one operator. The machine would have never succeeded if safety/ergonomics experience had not met this opportunity for efficiency improvement. This shows the value that safety people can bring if willing to go outside the confines of injury prevention.

Inefficiency, wasted effort, wasted time and performance hindrances are all good reasons to focus on improving ergonomics. They are also quantities that are closer to the day-to-day interests of decision makers in most companies. Selling your ergonomics process using these terms might make a big difference in whether or not you get senior management's full commitment, and support.

Staying Competitive in the Global Economy

We should also consider that safety professionals who can improve a process with ergonomics might help keep the plant in operation. The failure of a plant to remain globally competitive is an increasingly common reason for a plant closing. "Globalization," also seen by some as the exportation of manufacturing jobs, is hitting the United States hard since recent regulatory changes have made it easier and cheaper to import goods. Lately, a glance at practically any manufactured item is likely to reveal a "Made in China" label.

Regardless of one's position on globalization, U.S. manufacturing jobs are being lost to foreign competition. Many safety professionals work in manufacturing, and the safety jobs disappear along with the rest of the jobs when a plant closes. We need to be very concerned as a nation and as a profession about this problem.

Third World manufacturing plants often use outdated machinery from failed U.S. plants and have vastly inefficient labor-intensive operations that copy the wasteful way things were done in the United States many years ago, but the companies are operating in countries with cheap labor. Generally, the exporting countries have a vastly lower standard of living resulting in low wages, no workers' compensation costs, no health insurance or retirement benefits, etc.

We lost our electronics industries years ago to Asian countries. Have we now come to a point where we as a nation can no longer competitively make low tech items like a salad bowl, a hammer, a salt shaker, a flashlight or a shoe? Maybe not, if we look at how we use that labor.

A large part of our labor cost goes to wasted motion, effort and time. Just because labor is cheaper somewhere else does not mandate moving an operation. Rather than just export our existing inefficiencies to countries where the costs of labor would be so low as to make them insignificant, why not first implement a program to become more efficient, more productive, and reduce injury claims at the same time?

Manufacturers here compare the local costs of labor, regulatory requirements, real estate, insurance etc. when making the decision to stay here or move to a Third World manufacturing site. Unless a manufacturer has explored the opportunities for ergonomic and efficiency improvements before leaving the United States, they have not done their homework. The safety professional has a personal interest in promoting these improvements in that the safety jobs disappear with those of the factory workers. Safety professionals should take a role in motivating the management to invest in improving operations through ergonomics.

Look at our American auto manufacturers. They have been increasing their competitiveness for more than a decade. They have eliminated inefficiencies, reduced wastes, and improved quality so much that U.S.-manufactured cars consistently win quality contests while providing much more car for the money than imports, a complete reversal of the situation of 20 years ago. Much of this improvement has come from ergonomics, and team-oriented process improvement programs such as Kaizen, 5S and Lean Manufacturing that can use ergonomics elements in some applications.

Success Stories

Since adopting a comprehensive ergo approach rather than a solely injury-prevention focus, I have seen many successes for my Lockton clients. One example: an automotive parts manufacturing company has seen increases in efficiency of up to 80 percent in its manufacturing cells and an average $200,000 annual savings in each cell. These savings are calculated based solely on production factors, not injury reduction. However, there were substantial injury reductions associated with the changes.

A simple assistive machine in another plant not only eliminated many epicondylitis cases but also doubled efficiency. These savings add up to make it easier for these American plants to compete in global markets. They also result in measurable improvements that help the plant management achieve its goals and add value to the safety consultant's work product.

As safety professionals, we should be active in helping to improve competitiveness as a way to help ensure that our jobs will be there for us in the future. Helping reach shared goals of improved productivity, efficiency and quality through ergonomics will strengthen the role of the safety professional. We can make ourselves more valuable to our employers by becoming more integrated into "normal" operations rather than stepping in only when injury prevention is involved.

William H.Kincaid, P.E., CSP, is a vice president and senior loss control consultant for Lockton Cos. Inc. 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.

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