ERGONOMICS: Issues & Trends

October 1, 2001
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A new round of regulations aim to reduce work-related musculoskeletal injuries. But, many manufacturers have already taken proactive steps to address the problem

If the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) had its way, manufacturers around the country would be scrambling right now to meet the obligations of its sweeping ergonomics standard. The controversial federal mandate was supposed to take effect this month.

But, thanks to the Bush administration, which repealed the measure in March, assemblers now have more time to spend on other issues, such as creating Halloween costumes. In fact, don't be surprised if you see quite a few George Bush masks roaming about your plant, as management rejoices over the wads of money the new president saved them.

The OSHA regulations were expected to cost employers billions of dollars a year. Opponents of the ergonomics standard claim Bill Clinton rushed the rules into effect--after a decade of studies and debate--during his final days in office as a favor to labor unions.

Business groups vehemently op-posed the rules, claiming they were too far-reaching, too expensive and lacking in scientific evidence. The repealed OSHA regulations would have required employers to change workstations or jobs for workers complaining of injuries, and pay for medical attention. The repeal of the safety rules was a major blow for organized labor groups that argued enough studies and hearings had been conducted to support the need for regulations.

Too much celebration or disappointment on either side of the ergonomics debate may be premature. Indeed, there's a new wave of ergo activity circulating around Capitol Hill. Louisiana Democrats Sen. John Breaux and Rep. Chris John have introduced legislation (S. 598 and H.R. 1241, respectively) to force OSHA to issue a final ergonomics rule within 2 years. Meanwhile, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao claims the Bush administration is considering issuing new ergonomics rules that are likely to be less far-reaching and less expensive than the Clinton proposal.

The U.S. Department of Labor recently held special public hearings in three different parts of the country on work-related injuries: Arlington, VA, Chicago, and Palo Alto, CA. Participants included representatives from labor and industry. The findings are expected to determine how the Bush administration pursues any future ergonomics policy agenda.

According to Chao, the goal of the hearings was to develop a universal definition of injuries caused by repetitive motion and stress. "We are bringing everyone to the table to get this important issue moving forward and resolved," says Chao. "The issue isn't about whether we should deal with ergonomic injuries. It's about how we deal with them."

Chao claims the Labor Department will use the following set of principles as a starting point for creating a new ergonomics approach:

  • Prevention--the approach would place greater emphasis on preventing injuries before they occur.
  • Sound science--the approach would be based on the best available science and research.
  • Incentive driven--the approach would be based on cooperation between OSHA and employers.
  • Flexibility--the approach would take account of the varying capabilities and characteristics of different businesses.
  • Feasibility--future actions would recognize the costs of compliance to small businesses.
  • Clarity--any approach would include short, simple, common-sense instructions.
Chao urged participants in the recent information-gathering sessions to set aside politics and concentrate on worker protection. Participants were asked to address three issues: how to define an ergonomics injury; how to determine whether an ergonomics injury stems from work, from other activities or some combination; and what are the most useful and cost-effective types of government involvement to address these injuries.

Many Voices, Many Views

The ergonomics debate is characterized by many conflicting viewpoints. Because the exact causes of repetitive stress disorders are difficult to determine, labor, management, academia and the medical community often only agree to disagree.

Business groups, such as the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM, Washington, DC) are urging lawmakers to avoid a "rush to judgment" on the best way to address ergonomic disorders in the workplace. Mike Baroody, NAM executive vice president, claims that a "comprehensive and effective approach to ergonomics will take time." He warns lawmakers not to "make the same mistake twice and rush to develop a new ergonomics regulation that's just as flawed and ineffective as the one Congress wisely repealed."

The AFL-CIO (Washington, DC) has blasted OSHA for dropping the ball with its previous attempt to enact an ergonomics standard. "It was a political football that wasn't based on facts or truth," says Peg Seminario, the union's director of occupational safety and health. "OSHA now appears headed toward voluntary activity, rather than enacting a mandatory standard."

The American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA, Fairfax, VA), a group comprised of occupational and environmental health professionals, argues that many organizations will not respond to a voluntary approach. It believes that any formal ergonomics standard should "use a performance-based approach to allow organizations to adapt programs to their specific needs, cultures and resources."

The AIHA also would like to see some clarification in the terminology used to define work-related injuries. It claims that the term "musculoskeletal disorders" is a much better term than "ergonomics injury," given that "ergonomics does not cause the injury, but instead can help to prevent it."

Many observers applaud a landmark report issued earlier this year that was based on both scientific evidence and industry data. The 2-year study was conducted by the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies of Sciences (Washington, DC). It claims that "scientific evidence shows that musculoskeletal disorders of the lower back and upper extremities can be attributed to particular jobs and working conditions--including heavy lifting, repetitive and forceful motions, and stressful work environments."

A panel of 19 experts, including academics, physicians and industrial engineers, evaluated scientific literature on the topic, invited outside experts to share insights at its meetings, and visited two Ford Motor Co. (Dearborn, MI) plants as part of its research.

"Scientifically based prevention efforts can be effective in the workplace, substantially reducing the risk of job-related mulculoskeletal disorders," concludes Jeremiah Barondess, M.D., chairman of the panel that wrote the report and president of the New York Academy of Medicine (New York City). "However, the connection between the workplace and these disorders is complex, partly because of the individual characteristics of workers, such as age, gender and lifestyle."

Chao and her staff at the Labor Department plan to use the results of the recent public hearings to determine whether to pursue another government regulation or a voluntary policy. If it's anything like the first round of debate and political maneuvering, that decision could take months or years to finalize.

In fact, one former OSHA ergonomics consultant predicts that it will be at least 4 years before any new rule emerges. Other experts doubt whether future attempts at regulation will have any success. In the meantime, several other ergonomic standards are worth keeping an eye on.

Alternative Approaches

The Accredited Standards Committee on Control of Cumulative Trauma Disorders (Z365), accredited by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI, Washington, DC), has developed a proposed standard entitled Management of Work-Related Musculoskeletal Disorders. Unlike the ill-fated OSHA standard, the ANSI proposal is a voluntary standard. The National Safety Council (Itasca, IL) voluntarily administers the Z365 committee.

Ten years in the making, the proposed standard was developed by seeking consensus among those most affected, with committee representatives from business, labor, academia and professional societies. According to a National Safety Council spokes-man, the Z365 ergonomics standard is "intended as a guide for managers and occupational safety and health pro-fessionals to voluntarily keep workers safe from work-related musculoskeletal disorders."

Several states, such as California and Washington, have enacted their own ergonomics standards. Most observers claim the state of Washington standard, issued in May 2000, is the best. Labor and industry groups adopted the ergonomics mandate after a 20-month rule-making process. It will be phased in over a 5-year period, beginning July 1, 2002, allowing time for employers to prepare for compliance.

The Washington Department of Labor and Industries' (Tumwater, WA) ergonomics rule applies only to employers with "caution zone jobs," which are occupations where an employee's typical work includes physical risk factors specified in the rule. An example would be a job that requires an individual to lift objects weighing more than 25 pounds above the shoulders, below the knees or at arm's length more than 25 times per day.

The Washington rule requires employers to evaluate jobs to identify potential ergonomic risks, such as awkward, heavy lifting and highly repetitive motion. It requires employers to find and fix ergonomic hazards in their workplaces, but it won't subject them to penalties for workers who suffer ergonomic injuries. The implementation plan includes an extensive technical assistance program and training for employers, especially small businesses.

Positive Impact

Despite all the controversy surrounding the OSHA ergonomics standard, most observers agree that the stillborn legislation has had a positive impact. "Due to widespread media coverage, more people are familiar with the topic than ever," says Rob Nerhood, director of consultative services at the North Carolina Ergonomics Resource Center (Raleigh, NC). "Ergonomic buzzwords are now used to market a wide variety of consumer products, such as garden tools, which helps increase exposure to the topic."

"There's definitely a higher level of awareness today," adds Karl Jacobson, senior vice president of loss prevention at Liberty Mutual Insurance Co. (Boston). He believes the increase in awareness may encourage more ergonomics activity in the workplace.

In recent years, according to Jacobson, there has been an evolution in the way ergonomics is perceived. "Twenty years ago, the focus was on preventing accidents from happening," he points out. "Today, the emphasis has shifted from a reactive to a proactive philosophy. The emphasis is now on using ergonomics to achieve strategic business objectives."

In the absence of a regulation, ergonomics injuries have steadily declined for 10 years. In fact, NAM officials claim such injuries have decreased by more than 34 percent during the past 3 years. According to OSHA, approximately 16 percent of U.S. employers covering about 46 percent of the workforce already have some kind of self-imposed ergonomics program.

"Market forces are already at work here," says Pat Cleary, NAM senior vice president for human resources policy and external affairs. "Employers already are voluntarily collaborating with their employees to implement innovative programs to address repetitive stress injury complaints, with positive results."

Manufacturers in many different industries have witnessed a steady decline in back injuries and repetitive motion injuries. For instance, Delphi Automotive Systems (Troy, MI) has experienced an 85 percent reduction in lost days since 1993. Texas Instruments Inc. (Dallas) has seen a 70 percent drop in lost days since the mid-1980s. Xerox Corp. (Stamford, CT) has experienced a 57 percent decrease in ergonomic injuries since 1992.

"Preventive ergonomics is much more economical than reactive ergonomics," notes Alan Hedge, Ph.D., director of the human factors and ergonomics laboratory at Cornell University (Ithaca, NY). "If you choose the best ergonomic designs from the outset, ergonomics will work like a vaccination, protecting your employees while they are at work. If you treat ergonomics as a Band-Aid, you will spend time forever fighting fires without ever achieving companywide success."

Proactive Measures

"One mistake manufacturers make when it comes to ergonomics is not taking a proactive approach," says Sharon Falkenburg, managing director of national risk control for Aon Corp., a Chicago-based insurance company. "Incorporating a proactive approach increases early reporting of injuries and decreases the risk factors associated with them. If injuries do occur, employees are prepared with the routes to take for medical care. Management is prepared with light-duty positions and replacement employees."

When it comes to being pro-active on ergonomic, the auto industry has been at the forefront since the mid-1980s. "Most of the automotive manufacturers have been working hard on ergonomics for years," says Kevin Costello, executive vice president of Ergonomic Technologies Corp. (Syosset, NY). "Due to the nature of the business, such as new designs every year, there are constant changes to the manufacturing process and, as a result, great opportunities for ergonomic improvement.

"Major manufacturers are adopting vendor guidelines for ergonomics to ensure that new equipment brought into the plant abides by ergonomic principles," adds Costello. "The trickle down effect has been dramatic. These days, if you do not supply an ergonomic product, your days are numbered."

Every new or revamped plant floor layout in the auto industry gives serious attention to ergonomics. For instance, state-of-the-art assembly lines feature skillet conveyors. A skillet conveyor is a closed-loop, friction-drive system with a floor-level palette capable of carrying one vehicle. Each palette can be customized for a particular product, station, operation or operator. Skillet conveyors play a key role at the General Motors Corp. truck plant in Moraine, OH, that assembles the Chevrolet Trailblazer, GMC Envoy and Oldmobile Bravada.

"The conveyor can be adjusted to optimize the relationship between the operator and the tasks being performed," says Guy Briggs, vice president and general manager of GM vehicle manufacturing. "In real-world terms, the first-shift operator could stand 6 feet, 4 inches while the operator on the second shift could be 5 feet, 2 inches. With a few easy adjustments, the conveyor height can be changed to match the physical characteristics of the operator working a specific shift, reducing the opportunity for strains, sprains and muscle fatigue."

Another auto plant that makes extensive use of skillet conveyors is the brand new DaimlerChrysler Corp. Toledo North assembly plant that builds the Jeep Liberty. The $1.2 billion facility also uses a "gummiband" conveyor system. The 7-foot-wide rubber conveyor replaces the traditional metal conveyor, resulting in a softer, more ergonomically sound environment for assemblers.

Automakers and their suppliers have been at the forefront in using sophisticated material handling equipment, such as intelligent assist devices, that reduce the risk of overexertion when loading seats into vehicles and lifting other heavy objects. Tilting fixtures and vertically adjustable workcells are also widely used in the auto industry. In addition, more and more companies are using fastener containers and parts bins that feature ergonomic access areas and ergonomic handles. The universal goal is to get assemblers in the best posture regardless of the size of the operator.

"When you go into a plant today, you rarely see things laying on the floor anymore," says Don Chaffin, Ph.D., an engineering professor at the University of Michigan Center for Ergo-nomics (Ann Arbor, MI), and a former General Motors engineer. "During the past 15 years, the auto industry, in partner-ship with the United Auto Workers union, has been extremely progressive in the field of ergonomics."

According to Chaffin, much of that activity has been driven by lean manufacturing initiatives. "The concept of using agile and flexible manufacturing systems to respond quickly to marketplace demands is very compatible with ergonomics," he points out. "There's a clear relationship between quality, productivity and ergonomics."

Lean Manufacturing Impact

More and more companies are pulling ergonomic activities into lean manufacturing initiatives. Indeed, it makes sense to package ergonomics under the lean manufacturing umbrella, since both activities are seen as a way to improve cycle times, throughput and efficiency.

"It's a perfect fit," says Chris McIntyre, president of Ergonomics at Work Inc. (Kitchener, ON). "Normally, it is easier to get buy in and cost justification on ergonomics when it's part of a much bigger improve-ment process. Ergonomics should be presented as a way to improve an entire production process."

According to McIntyre, ergonomics and lean manufacturing are complementary, because both strive to minimize unnecessary effort while maximizing productivity. The goal of lean manufacturing is to get rid of anything in the production process that doesn't add value. That means getting rid of waste, such as wasted motion.

"Ergonomics should play a key role in effectively implementing lean manufacturing initiatives," adds John Boyle, a design and ergonomics consultant at Munro & Associates Inc. (Troy, MI). "What is required for lean production? Common, capable processing of products. What is ergonomics? The study of human process capability. Go ahead and try to [make a lean] system without understanding ergonomics. I guarantee either poor quality, poor throughput or an injury."

Boyle suggests piggybacking ergonomics with lean manufacturing initiatives. "When laying out the plant floor for lean manufacturing, make sure you consider ergonomics," he says. "If you consider both at the same time, they will pay for each other and make everyone happy. But, if you purely look at ergonomics, you will have a hard time paying for it."

Unfortunately, Boyle says too many companies view ergonomics as a "human resources issue." That type of mind-set can have disastrous consequences. In fact, it can create animosity between engineers and safety and health professionals.

"Up to 90 percent of all ergonomics activity today is reactive," claims Chaffin. "Top management often views ergonomics as an HR problem. When employees complain or lawyers make threats, management takes a reactive approach to dealing with the problem. If ergonomics is being driven by human resources, engineers are out of the loop."

"Too many companies look at ergonomics from a safety and health standpoint," adds McIntyre. "Ergo-nomics is more about engineering than about safety and health. Companies that focus on human resource issues focus strictly on injuries. But, ergonomics covers more than just injuries. You should look at injuries and performance issues." McIntyre believes the best approach is to consider ergonomics from a cost-benefit standpoint. He suggests asking, "How can we make the process better to improve bottom-line performance?"

"Most companies do not address ergonomics until there are injuries, and injuries are typically a human resource domain," McIntyre points out. There can be animosity, because HR often tends to imply that the injuries occurred because "the engineers didn't do their job properly in the first place."

"This is typically the single greatest obstacle to implementing ergonomic improvements," says Boyle. "Health and safety folks and engineers commonly consider each other adversaries in dealing with ergo issues. This is flat-out wrong."

Many experts recommend using cross-functional teams that address ergonomics as a productivity issue. "One of the keys is convincing these supposed adversaries that they actually do want the same thing," notes Boyle. "People need to work together. Safety and health people simply don't have the technical knowledge to deal with ergonomic issues."

According to Costello, companies with effective ergonomic programs view it as a multidisciplinary issue. For ergonomics to be effective, it needs the HR group, safety, engineering, production employees, management, skilled trades and medical staff actively involved. "I've seen groups work very effectively together to solve ergonomic problems," says Costello.

Delphi Automotive Systems uses a joint ergonomics task team (JETT) in each of its plants, with members responsible for ergonomic issues and concerns. The teams, comprised of labor and management, are empowered to conduct risk factor checks whenever a complaint arises on the shop floor and whenever a new machine or piece of equipment is added to an assembly line.

"To become a JETT, employees must attend a 40-hour class in practical ergonomics training," says Karl Bossung, Delphi's director of health and safety. During the training process, JETTs study a wide range of ergonomic topics, such as the effects of force, repetition and posture.

Above all, ergonomic teams must not lose sight of the fact that manufacturers are in business to build a product. "Anything that inhibits that goal is not a solution," warns Costello. "This is a collaborative effort. Many of the solutions to workplace ergonomic problems require creative design."

Engineers Play a Key Role

Most observers believe manufacturing engineers hold the key to understanding and solving ergonomic issues. "Fewer companies with mature ergonomic efforts see ergonomics as human-resource driven," says Josh Kerst, vice president of Humantech Inc. (Ann Arbor, MI). "When the goal is better human performance, we have seen little if any push back from the engineering groups. Ergonomically better often equals less wasted motion and better engineering."

"The most effective ergonomists are engineers," adds Costello. "It is important to be able to understand the process and to provide realistic solutions. The engineering group must be the major driving force behind any ergonomics efforts. Without engineering support, an ergonomics program will definitely fail."

"Proactive companies realize that ergonomics is not only an injury reduction issue, but that it is a human performance issue," says Ergonomics at Work's McIntyre. "If workstations and work areas are designed to maximize human performance through ergonomics, the performance of the company is increased as well. So, if engineers are responsible for work design and work performance, how can ergonomics not be part of the process?"

At the Xerox Corp. copier machine plant in Webster, NY, manufacturing engineers have ownership of ergonomic issues. "Responsibility lies with them to set up our assembly lines as ergonomically sound as possible," says Wendi Latko, manager of workplace safety. However, she believes operators are the best experts. "They know when stressors are on their bodies," notes Latko. Some employees at the facility have even patented ergonomic tools.

"If a company wants to be profitable, it had better hold its engineers responsible," adds Munro & Associates' Boyle. He believes it's important to look at engineering as the root cause of all the issues seen in production.

"Our methods focus on making engineers, working with production personnel, responsible for what occurs on the plant floor," says Boyle. "It's important to teach engineers how to deal with assembly issues to maximize profitability." He recommends forcing engineers to focus on improving profitability and workplace ergonomics at the same time.

"I haven't seen anything that works better," explains Boyle. "From a profitability standpoint, nothing else makes sense. If you don't do this, dealing with ergo issues on the plant floor is like putting lipstick on a bulldog--it's still ugly, just not as ugly as before."

"Ergonomics issues should be dealt with repeatedly at the early stages of product design, at the early stages of workstation design and at the start of production," says Boyle. "Engineering and manufacturing should sign off together."

What's Needed

Many observers do not believe government intervention is necessary. Instead, they argue that there needs to be a more concentrated focus on education, training and communication. "In many cases, ergonomics is common sense," says Costello. "Attaching a large bureaucracy to the process can be counter productive."

One of the biggest misnomers about ergonomics is that it is expensive. Indeed, there's a widespread misconception that ergonomics programs "have to be expensive" to be effective. This fallacy persists among small manufacturers.

Some experts believe the "it costs too much" mind-set exists because most of the well-publicized interventions are expensive. Others say it's because people like to teach other people with examples of interventions that are big and fancy. "This is one of the biggest myths about ergonomics," says Cornell's Hedge.

"The expense of an ergonomics program does not correspond to its effectiveness," adds Aon's Falkenburg. "A low cost, corporate-backed ergonomics program with employee participation can be as successful as an expensive, elaborate ergonomics program."

"Low cost, simple, common sense solutions often work," notes the AFL-CIO's Peg Seminario. In fact, approximately 70 percent of accommodations for injured workers cost under $500 and many have little or no cost at all.

Consultant John Boyle, who's currently working with a shipbuilder, says he came up with a great intervention for about $25 worth of supplies and 2 hours wandering around a local Home Depot store.

Aside from miscommunication, some experts claim there's a serious lack of ergonomics education in engineering schools. As a result, many manufacturing engineers find themselves ill-prepared to address overexertion, repetitive motion strains and other problems they encounter on the plant floor.

"There typically is little or no exposure to ergonomics in most engineering curricula," laments the University of Michigan's Don Chaffin. "Few engineers come out of school with ergonomics exposure." Chaffin believes industry needs to put pressure on university administrators and faculty members.

"Some schools do a great job of incorporating ergonomics into the engineering curriculum," says Ergonomic Technologies' Costello. But, he admits things could be better. "To improve awareness and exposure, perhaps state-supported schools should be pressured to incorporate at least the basics of ergonomics into their engineering curricula," Costello suggests, "particularly in states that have enacted laws requiring companies to abide by some form of ergonomics regulation."

In addition to education, Rob Nerhood of the North Carolina Ergonomics Resource Center believes more companies need to share their ergonomics success stories. "We are lacking good cost-benefit studies," says Nerhood. "Ergonomics is a productivity and quality tool that can be used to gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace. As a result, many manufacturers are not willing to share information. However, it would be nice if more companies stepped forward and shared their successes."

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