Tony Giammarinaro has seen a few interesting arrangements in his time as a sales representative with Atlantic Industrial Technologies (Islandia, NY), a distributor for Bosch Automation Products (Buchanan, MI). He remembers visiting a manufacturer that wanted to streamline one of its operations. An assembler would start the operation by lifting a very heavy coil from a flimsy wire rack and placing it on his "workbench"--some plywood placed across two sawhorses. The assembler would add a few parts, and when he was finished, the coil would be transferred from his workbench to another by Anna, who is 4 feet, 8 inches tall and weighs 120 pounds. "I shook my head in utter disbelief," says Giammarinaro.

During the next 2 years, Giammarinaro constantly suggested proposals for ergonomic improvements, including conveyors, workstations and other automated assembly systems. Each time, he was told his recommendations were too expensive.

In December 2000, the issue came up again. This time, instead of trying to solve all the problems at once, Giammarinaro proposed three relatively simple workstations that would handle all the assembly requirements for that particular cell. "We got the order, and the customer loved them," Giammarinaro recalls. "He's now talking about some conveyors, and he has an immediate requirement for three more Bosch workstations."

The Disappearing Chairs

Biofit Engineered Products (Waterville, OH) is accustomed to recognition for the comfort of its ergonomic seating. However, at one Midwestern automotive supplier, Biofit chairs proved to be so comfortable that they kept disappearing from their original stations. To solve the problem, Biofit had to devise a "colorful" solution.

The facility's original seating was an ergonomist's nightmare. Assembly line personnel sat on wooden chairs that were so uncomfortable that the workers had to improvise. They taped pillows and large chunks of padding on the chairs to gain comfort and ergonomic support. Another solution was to find cardboard cartons in the shipping department, break them into sections, and use the cardboard as cushions and backrests.

Biofit replaced the wood seats with its 4P series of industrial upholstered chairs. The chair has a waterfall front seat and an articulating seat control. With this control, a seated worker can use one hand to adjust seat tilt and backrest tilt independently. A second lever adjusts seat height.

The new chairs proved so popular that they began "moving" from one department to another without consent of the chair users. An assembly line worker would leave a chair for a few minutes only to find it gone when he returned. The unauthorized movement of the chairs ballooned from a nuisance into a logistics issue and an employee-relations problem that threatened to disrupt production.

Chains were the automotive supplier's first answer. Securing the chairs with long lengths of chain effectively deterred interdepartmental movement. However, the chain was also a major safety hazard, so another antitheft device had to be devised.

Biofit proposed color-coding the chairs by department. One assembly line would be equipped with chairs with blue upholstery. Another line would be outfitted with red upholstered seating, and another would get black chairs.

Color-coding was a win-win solution for Biofit and the manufacturer. Biofit received an order for several hundred chairs, and the automotive supplier resolved it's seating dilemma.

Small Changes, Big Results

At most assembly plants, ergonomic problems are rarely as glaring as sawhorse workbenches and old wooden chairs. Rather, a basic assembly line is laid out with some attention to cost and efficiency, but in the rush to get product out the door, harried manufacturing engineers can't find time to tweak the system for ergonomics. However, even small ergonomic improvements can make a big difference.

John O'Kelly, sales and marketing manager at Production Basics (Watertown, MA), says almost every manufacturer can make better use of space. He's visited many plants where assemblers have spread out their work on 8-foot-long tables. "A big, long table is the cheapest solution, but ergonomically, it's not the best solution, because workers are constantly stretching to reach what they need," he says. "Never mind the productivity that's lost when people have to get up every 2 minutes to walk from one end of the table to the other."

Another problem with an excessively large work area is that the unused space invites clutter, adds Patrick Beck, marketing leader for APW Wright Line (Worcester, MA). "Clutter is how things get lost," he says. "Whenever an assembler has to look for a lost a tool, it represents lost productivity."

Instead of spreading parts out horizontally, manufacturers should make better use of the vertical space in front of the operator. A workstation with vertical uprights enables manufacturers to locate parts bins, tools, adhesive dispensers and work instructions within easy reach in front of the operator. The work surface can then be dedicated exclusively to product assembly. "The workstation becomes an independent work center," O'Kelly says.

Often, the work surface, itself, can be adapted to simplify assembly, says Beck. Parts bins can be dropped into to the work surface. A turntable can greatly help an assembler who must constantly reach around a product. Similarly, a work surface that can be raised or lowered can prevent awkward squatting or bending postures.

Parts presentation is another area that is frequently neglected and easily improved, Beck says. Parts can be presented on flow racks or mobile carts. "Ideally, you want your skilled technicians to remain sitting at their workstations, building product, rather than fetching parts," he explains.

Less Is More

Sometimes, the best solution to an ergonomics problem is not more automation, but less. Joy Ebben, Ph.D., senior human factors and ergonomics technical advisor at IAC Industries (Brea, CA), remembers helping a manufacturer of electric motors with just such a situation. The company assembled the motors in U-shaped cells. One worker assembled the entire motor from start to finish, including final test and packaging. Assemblers used overhead hoists to move large motors along the cell, but they moved smaller motors--some weighing as much as 20 pounds--by hand.

"All the tools needed to assemble the motor could not be put at one station, so it made sense to move the motor," Ebben recalls. "But, the company was concerned about excessive material handling."

To solve the problem, the company wanted to produce the motors on a traditional assembly line. Such a process would have made assembly more efficient, but Ebben was concerned that it could backfire. On an assembly line, workers who once assembled entire motors would now be relegated to performing a single operation. "Companies that only look at time-motion studies could be short-changing themselves," she explains. "You may want to give workers some variety to reduce strain from repetitive motion and make their jobs more interesting."

As an alternative, Ebben suggested installing rollers and other material handling devices to make moving the motors easier. "Ultimately, the company was better off being less efficient, because people were more satisfied with their jobs," Ebben says.

Congress Repeals OSHA Ergonomics Standard President Bush has repealed a federal ergonomics standard for manual assembly and material handling jobs, just 5 months after it was issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

OSHA issued the standard Nov. 14, 2000, after more than 2 years of hearings, and it took effect Jan. 16, 2001. The National Association of Manufacturers opposed the standard, and in early March, Congress passed a joint resolution calling for repeal of the standard under the Congressional Review Act of 1996. Bush signed the resolution into law March 20.

In a statement, Bush called the regulation "unduly burdensome and overly broad."

"There needs to be a balance between...the costs and benefits associated with federal regulations," Bush said. "In this instance, though, in exchange for uncertain benefits, the ergonomics rule would have cost both large and small employers billions of dollars."

Among other obligations, the standard would have required manufacturers to respond promptly to ergonomic complaints from workers, analyze problem jobs for ergonomic risk factors, supply personal protective equipment, and provide health care to injured workers. In addition, manufacturers would have been required to pay injured employees who can't work 90 percent of their wages and 100 percent of benefits.

Ray Gottsleben, vice president of sales and marketing at Arlink (Burlington, ON, Canada), says manufacturers were concerned that the cost of implementing the standard would be too high. "Another concern was how to determine if someone's injury was truly work-related," he says.

According to OSHA estimates, the standard would have affected 27 million workers at 1.9 million work sites, or approximately one-third of general industry employers. The agency predicted that the regulation would have cost employers $4.2 billion annually to implement, but would have saved $9 billion per year in workers' compensation and other costs.

Although Gottsleben did not expect to reap a windfall from the standard, he's disappointed it was overturned. "OSHA usually underestimates the benefits of their rules and overestimates the costs," he observes. "OSHA is like the IRS to some people, but the programs that OSHA has put in place have paid off better than expected. ...Ergonomics won't go away as an issue."


For more information about the ergonomic products mentioned in this article, please contact the following suppliers:

APW Wright Line
Worcester, MA

Arlink Burlington, ON, Canada

Biofit Engineered Products
Waterville, OH

Bosch Rexroth
Buchanan, MI

IAC Industries
Brea, CA

Production Basics
Watertown, MA