Numerous ergonomic guidelines exist. Unfortunately, they are not always followed correctly on the plant floor. Some manufacturers are indifferent to guidelines because of a lack of understanding, cost-cutting pressure or lean manufacturing initiatives.
“Lack of knowledge about ergonomics and failure to recognize benefits of ergonomics is the chief reason for resistance,” claims Wayne Maynard, director of ergonomics at the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety (Hopkinton, MA). “Many ergonomic guideline references are available, but too few people know about them.
“One of the most common reasons [why guidelines are ignored] is lack of buy-in,” Maynard points out. “If an organization doesn’t understand ergonomics or thinks ergonomics is a big black hole in which funds are expended with absolutely no rate of return on investment, then ergonomic initiatives will fail.
“It is not unusual for us to spend time at the leadership level first to makes sure the organization is on board with ergonomics and understands the benefits completely,” says Maynard. “Ergonomics is about maximizing human performance at work. Ergonomics is not about a fancy chair, bent angle hand tool or spending lots of money. Ergonomics is about mitigating those factors that contribute to mental and physical fatigue, and reduction of human performance in the workplace. Safety is a side benefit.”
While there are many resources, tools and guidelines available, finding a concise set of guidelines that cover all areas of a specific industry may be more difficult. “Ergonomic guidelines on the plant floor tend to take the form of work methods or other administrative controls,” notes Julia Greenwald, senior ergonomist at the Ergonomics Center of North Carolina (Raleigh, NC), which is housed in the Edward P. Fitts Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at North Carolina State University. “Like athletes, industrial workers build muscle memory as they perform a job repeatedly.
“Asking them to change the method of how they do a job is difficult,” warns Greenwald. “It takes time and effort to change a habit and the muscle memory associated with it. Most workers will get frustrated and give up. It is much more effective to [implement] engineering controls (physical changes to the product or workstation) that reduce or eliminate the risk.”
Ergonomic guidelines are not always followed correctly because some companies believe that following them will either slow down operators or will cost too much to implement. “Unfortunately, [those types of companies don’t] always understand the potential benefit of following the guidelines,” says Thomas Waters, Ph.D., chief engineer of human factors and ergonomics research at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH, Washington, DC). “Often, someone needs to show them that following guidelines will be cost-effective before they will implement a change.”
“Many companies do not initially see the value that can be found in ergonomic opportunities,” adds Greenwald. “As ergonomics is not directly regulated, focus is placed only on regulated safety and health issues. Ergonomics becomes a subset of safety, and not a priority.”
“Issues are identified only on a reactive basis, after a worker has become injured,” Greenwald points out. “Injury data and costs, such as worker’s compensation, are used to justify controls, making it difficult to implement changes proactively or prior to the injury.
“More advanced companies that have implemented ergonomic programs proactively realize that changes made for ergonomics can positively affect productivity and quality,” explains Greenwald. “Ergonomics and lean manufacturing actually integrate well together, as ergonomics strives to reduce waste in movement and muscular effort, which can lead to fatigue. Fatigued muscles are more likely to incur an injury.”
According to Maynard, manufacturers that practice lean and Six Sigma principles usually accept ergonomics more readily as risk factors associated with musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) [that lead to] waste and non-value-added activity. “Continuous improvement initiatives, kaizen events and team-based activities that recognize and correct ergonomic design issues in a timely fashion are congruent with ergonomic approaches,” he points out.