Protecting the human resource – More businesses taking a harder look at workplace ergonomics

Posted on Nov 1, 2011 :: Industries
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

From robotics to therapeutic methods like stretching, regional manufacturers are making changes that lessen the physical strains on workers’ bodies. There is progress being made in what some call industrial ergonomics, but those involved say there is no single step to ensure that front-line workers stay pain-free.

At Roloff Manufacturing, a Kaukauna-based foundry, the company replaced a bucket elevator and hopper with an incline belt and a newer feeder hopper to reduce the labor involved in clearing jams and keeping the equipment maintained. According to Dave Roloff, company president, the improvement also helped throughput.

Roloff Manufacturing, along with six other foundries and manufacturers in the area, teamed up to form the Northeast Wisconsin Foundry Ergonomics Partnership. The group looks at ways to improve workplace ergonomics. According to Roloff, many of the equipment changes that partnership members have made not only reduce strains, they also help with throughput.

“We found that by focusing on the ergonomics side, it reduced accidents and fatigue, which in turn, improves the productivity,” he says.

Some tweaks don’t require fancy equipment. At Roloff, bags of sand that used to sit on the floor were moved on top of a stack of pallets to reduce lift distance. In certain cases, adds Roloff, ergonomic improvements can be justified simply for the health-related benefits.

Some improvement can be made through training employees on lifting technique and proper posture, notes Eric Blankenheim, an ergonomics expert and co-owner of Blankenheim Services, a provider of physical and occupational therapy.

However, Blankenheim notes, some of the big gains are made through redesigning tasks or perhaps adding automated equipment. On-site assessments can help identify which changes to make.

The aging demographics of the U.S. workforce make continued attention to ergonomics important. Shoulder injury, including rotator cuff pain, is one growing area of risk, Blankenheim says. The problems come from having to pull at extended angles within the “impingement zone” for the shoulder.

Shoulder strains can be reduced by redesigning tasks, but in some cases, the most feasible remedy is to rotate workers so that no single individual is over-exposed to the movement.

“There are some inherent risks at the shoulder,” says Blankenheim. “It’s a joint that doesn’t have a very big articulating surface — like a golf ball on a tee — and it has to perform some fairly complex movements.”

Experts agree companies should not go on gut feel when redesigning tasks, but rather carefully analyze the risks and motions involved in the work area that is causing injury.

“Most employers care about the individual worker who is suffering, but they should also care about the risks to everyone else doing that same job, and look for ways to reduce those risks,” says Molly Huben, an occupational therapist with Bellin Occupational Health. “It’s much like root cause analysis for manufacturing improvements.”

Huben says a key trend in industrial ergonomics is a holistic approach that blends ergonomics and safety with wellness efforts. That concept resonates with Chris Gobris, manager of safety and health services for Georgia Pacific’s Green Bay operations. Gobris says that while over the years, investments in automation such as packaging robotics have reduced many of the repetitive strains on workers at Georgia Pacific, the current approach is an integrated one that blends aspects of worker safety, ergonomics and wellness.

For example, says Gobris, workers within Georgia Pacific’s maintenance department have experimented with stretching routines before starting their field work, and generally, more employees are joining health clubs, walking, and trying to follow other healthy habits like drinking more water.

“We are developing a concept around the industrial athlete where we are trying to get our employees to understand the similarity between how an athlete gets prepared for competition and what they do to get ready for work,” Gobris says.

Blankenheim agrees there should be an integrated approach that spans wellness and ergonomics. On the therapy side of treating worker injuries, an ongoing trend is on-site therapy, he says. Another trend is the use of kinesiology tape—a special type of tape that promotes proper muscle movement and body mechanics.

For Gobris, it remains important to study opportunities for ergonomic-related improvements such as changing the way material is fed into machines. Other simple steps such as using a counterweight and pulley to help lift a load can be deployed at low cost. But at a deeper level, says Gobris, ergonomics needs to go hand-in-hand with worker wellness because more energetic, alert and stronger workers will be better able to avoid or withstand the physical strains that can’t be engineered out of the manufacturing environment.

“There is no doubt in my mind that the healthier your employees are, the safer they are going to be,” says Gobris.