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.
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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
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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