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Ergonomics is the broad study of how people interact with their environment. It covers a wide range of these interactions—from how people fit into their cars, to the way tools feel in people’s hands, to motion in the workplace. As with your car, a proper ‘fit’ in the workplace makes a job much easier to perform. More importantly, it also can help to reduce injury.

There is a strong relationship between ergonomics and repetitive stress injuries. Lifting heavy objects at uncomfortable angles is also known to cause injury. Finally, fatigue occurs in poorly designed work areas. This can contribute to a higher injury rate because tired people tend to make more mistakes than rested ones.

Ergonomically designed workstations keep the operator in mind. They should minimize uncomfortable positions and reaches, thereby reducing the potential for injury.

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Ergonomics is a part of any comprehensive safety plan. There are two kinds of basic safety issues. The first is the safety incident. These are the types of problems that occur instantly, like slipping on wet concrete, or getting a hand pinched in a clamp. The other kinds of injuries are cumulative injuries. They are things like breathing small amounts of fumes each day until a respiratory problem develops. Ergonomics tends to fall into this category. Because there is often no clear cause and effect, for example as you would see in a chemical burn from a spill, ergonomic related injuries don’t receive the same level of attention.

When toxic chemicals are present, a company is required to display Material Safety Data Sheets containing, among other things, safe handling instructions. You typically don’t see the same proactive, immediate focus on ergonomics. If you saw a person performing work with a solvent without a respirator, for example, or mixing carcinogenic chemicals without gloves, you would likely immediately stop them. If you saw a person slouching over his computer screen, it is much more likely that you would walk right by. Fortunately, though, ergonomics is rapidly gaining prominence in the workplace.

To begin stressing ergonomics, ask around your company. The facilities team is a good place to start. Find out if there are established standards. If so, get a copy of whatever you have and audit your team for compliance.

Keep in mind that comfort plays a big role in productivity. Unfortunately, proper ergonomics costs money. It often requires completely replacing furniture and fixtures. Sometimes, though, it might just require a few more minor tweaks. Moving the most commonly used tools and parts nearer to the operator can make a significant reduction to the number or reaches outside the ergonomic zone. Keep in mind that designing ergonomics into a work area will nearly always be cheaper than trying to modify the workspace later if it caused ergonomic problems.

Simple Ergonomic Suggestions

  1. Make workstations adjustable. Use hand cranks, pneumatic lifts, or simple pins to set the height.
  2. Consider organizing groups by similar height. It can be somewhat difficult to organize like this on small teams, but if people are swapping stations often, or doing a rabbit chase in a U-Shaped cell, it can prevents the tallest or shortest on a team from stooping or stretching. Talk to your HR team if you try this approach, because if done wrong, it could infringe on people’s rights and employment law.
  3. Give your stations wings. Make work areas wrap around the operator so there is not stretching to the right or left. This works best for materials and tool storage. Instead of using long shelves and racks, bring the ends in closer to the operator.
  4. Use parts tubes. It reduces the space that you need to store materials at point of use, which also reduces reaches.
  5. Use dual monitors for computers if multiple programs are used. It reduces clicks and the associated motion.
  6. Go paperless. It prevents the look down-look up motion between the screen and paper on the desk. It also limits the amount of bending required to file papers in the drawers that are close to the ground.
  7. Use a stand-up workstation with a tall chair. Some people find that alternating between standing and sitting gives them more energy and less fatigue.
  8. Swap jobs. Don’t let fatigue build up over time. Doing different jobs requires changing up movements. The variety can reduce repetitive stress injuries.

  • Don’t scrimp on ergonomics. It may require investing in new furniture or equipment.
  • Consult an expert. When you are dealing with people’s health, don’t just wing it.

Do an assessment of your ergonomic situation. If you are not experienced at this, consider hiring an expert to help you figure out what you need to improve on.

Once you have a plan, be sure to track progress. Ergonomics, as important as it is long term, can be easy to table when there are other pressing requirements.

Be sure to track progress. Important things get measured. One metric used to gauge of ergonomic success is how often an operator must make a reach outside the comfortable area (aka the neutral zone) directly in front of the operator. Consider using this metric to track improvements in kaizen events.

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