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The Wild, Wonderful World of Manufacturing Ergonomics

Nov. 16, 2021
Here are postures and movements to watch out for—and how to redesign processes for fewer injuries and greater worker comfort.

Ergonomics, at its core, is central to all that is performed in the workplace. It’s much more than fitting the workplace to the worker; it’s the combination of engineering, biomechanics, psychology, sociology, design, complex problem solving and anthropometry.

Ergonomics encompasses the whole workforce of a company, and a focus on ergonomics is essential to reducing injury rates, creating a safe working environment and decreasing costs—all while increasing production.

When looking at manufacturing ergonomics, it’s important to know that it is possible to improve the workplace. Much of the time, the work setting and processes do not change often. However, if an ergonomic risk factor occurs, engineering controls can be implemented and workflow processes can change to benefit workers and reduce discomfort.

Here are five awkward postures for workers to avoid and seven steps to help you initiate a successful ergonomics program.

Awkward Postures to Avoid in Manufacturing

Part of the challenge with manufacturing ergonomics is that work may involve repetition, forceful exertion or sustained body positioning, all of which pose a risk to proper body alignment.

Therefore, safety professionals should watch for these four postures. If found, they should consult with workers, engineers, operations, ergonomists and other key stakeholders to implement corrective actions. This may involve engineering changes or additional safety trainings, which could include a comprehensive stretch and flex program.

Arms above the head

Working with arms above the head could create several health issues, including muscle spasms, shoulder strains and shoulder inflammation, just to name a few. Positioning conveyors or other frequent tasks that take employees out of their power zone, the area between the mid-thigh and mid-chest height, is where injuries and accidents can happen. The power zone is where an individual can lift the most with the least amount of effort; elbows are at 90 degrees and close to the body.

Corrective actions include engineering solutions to lower tasks or equipment that will accommodate working in the power zone.

Twisting back 

With the back allowing a maximum 35 degrees of rotation, muscle strains, disc herniations or bone spurs could be a complication from extreme twisting motions. It’s important to educate workers about repetitive or extreme twisting motions when handling materials.

Corrective actions include redesigning an area to best accommodate the task or instructing employees to “dance” with the material to avoid twisting. This requires workers to handle the material in such a way that they are turning their whole body instead of their upper torso. For example, when placing an item on an adjacent shelf, one should move their feet and turn their entire body in one fluid motion.

Forward bending

The seemingly simplest of tasks can have the most devastating consequences, such as bending down to pick something up. Distribution of weight causes a tremendous amount of pressure and stress on the lumbar spine and back musculature.

Corrective actions may include lowering workstations, utilizing equipment (e.g., lift-assist devices and carts) or changing/redesigning tools if repeated forward bending is required to perform a task.

Non-neutral wrists 

Here’s a test: Grab something with a straight, neutral wrist and pick it up. Now perform the same task with a bent wrist. Notice the difference? Performing tasks that require workers to bend their wrists not only decreases grip strength but could lead to issues such as carpel tunnel syndrome. However, redesigning a workstation is not always needed.

Corrective actions may include education and additional training for workers. If it does come down to redesign, make sure that neutral wrists are accounted for. Grip strength is everything in manufacturing. Flexed or extended wrists will either shorten or lengthen the wrist tendons. Once this occurs, grip strength will be hindered. The key is to keep wrists straight, or like the position one assumes when shaking hands.

Frequent kneeling and squatting 

Occasional kneeling and squatting throughout the day are normal occurrences. However, when kneeling and squatting become frequent, it can cause problems. As our bodies age, fluids that help lubricate our joints begin to dry up. A combination of frequent squatting to perform tasks and the natural process of aging could lead to osteoarthritis developing in the knees. What’s more, frequent kneeling on hard surfaces could result in bursitis, a massive amount of swelling on the knee.

Corrective actions may include identifying job tasks that pose a risk to frequent kneeling and squatting, redesigning an area to raise it up (if possible) to prevent or counteract these movements, and fitting employees with knee pads if they need to perform a kneeling task. 

Problem Solving

Oftentimes, a safety/ergonomic issue arises, but companies are too late to address the concern. We live in a reactive world with little emphasis on being proactive, though, to be fair, forecasting is difficult. We cannot tell the future, and many companies do not want to spend the money to implement a control with unforeseeable risks.

As safety professionals and company leaders, we know that it is in everyone’s best interest to identify these issues. This point is front and center with ergonomics concerns. They are generally considered low priority items yet are some of the most expensive injuries encountered in the workplace. A proactive approach is core to accomplishing your ergonomic goals. Here are some tips to bring this all together.


Start with a simple survey. Ask workers a series of questions related to improvement of controls. Specifically, ask what they see as a benefit to improve a task, process or piece of equipment. Company-wide surveys are an essential part of applying ergonomic controls. Keep it anonymous for honest feedback. Focus on questions centered around their difficulties of certain tasks performed and discomfort experienced while at work. Use this information to perform a factory audit.

Factory Audit 

Once the data is collected, investigate employee concerns. Also, it’s important to review past data, including OSHA Log of Injuries or Illnesses, or OSHA Form 300. Taking a proactive approach from the administered survey, observe employee body positioning and mechanics. Ask yourself if engineering controls are required or additional education is needed. Utilize online ergonomic forms from OSHA to conduct a general assessment, or an evaluation of the area identifying ergonomic and safety concerns.

Education and Collaboration 

From the factory audit, what have you discovered? Does the equipment need to be redesigned? Are employee body mechanics an issue? A quick overview of stretching or implementing a pre-work stretching session could be helpful for workers. If an engineering concern is present, collaborate with the engineering and maintenance departments about what can be done to correct this issue. Involve employees in the design and decision-making process, especially if engineering controls are needed.

Cost Justification

When exploring possible solutions, it’s important to consider the potential costs. Utilization of the OSHA safety pays estimator is a beneficial tool when comparing an ergonomic injury in relation to the expense of the control. The tool is geared toward manufacturing and offers a feature that incorporates the sales of that product to make up for the cost of an injury.

Consider the Human Factor 

There’s no question about it. Everyone’s body is unique in many ways: height, weight, age, gender, health profile, etc. When looking to apply engineering controls to your setup, involve employees as much as possible.  After all, they are the ones doing the work. Though often overlooked, employee involvement is center to successful implementation of controls.

Case Studies 

After implementation of controls, follow-up with workers. Ask them about what has changed and if those recommendations/controls are working. Before and after pictures are always helpful visuals to show progress. Present your findings to company leadership, and be sure to celebrate the success with the ergonomic control.

Continuous Improvement 

While not the most exciting of topics, implementing an ergonomic solution to a manufacturing floor can be a thrill. Take that momentum to the next level, and express your excitement to the rest of the employee base by presenting your findings and the overall success. Remember, ergonomics is an ongoing effort and does not stop even after a solution has been implemented. Continue observing tasks that employees perform and conduct employee interviews frequently.


The whole process of identifying and implementing an ergonomic control can be a wild ride. However, with the right plan in place, successful implementation of ergonomic controls will reduce injuries, improve morale and keep safety your number one priority.

Scott Mullett, M.A., AT, CEFE, is a board certified and state licensed athletic trainer and an employee at Ergonomic Consultants Incorporated. He has been an occupational athletic trainer for over 6 years, performing injury prevention and ergonomic services for several manufacturing companies in Ohio and Indiana. Previously, he practiced for six years as an athletic trainer within the secondary school setting. 

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