The economics of ergonomics

Posted on Jan 1, 2013 :: Cover Story
Posted by , Insight on Manufacturing Staff Writer

When it comes to injuries, manufacturers know that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of worker’s compensation claims.

Bill Scheidt, health safety and environmental manager at Rockline Industries in Sheboygan, says in 2000 his company had an OSHA recordable incident rate of 16.19 per 100 employees. The rate was about twice that of the industry average at the time. After investigating the cause, the company determined that poor ergonomics was the main culprit.

“We tried instituting some things like job rotation and that type of thing on our own, which took us to a certain point,” Scheidt says. “But it still didn’t have the great impact that we were hoping it was going to.”

That’s when the company found Blankenheim Services, one of several New North-area businesses that specialize in making sure workers stay healthy, productive and injury-free by helping people adopt healthy habits as they perform tasks in the workplace. Ergonomics ensures work is performed in a way to best minimize injury, therefore improving productivity and long-term cost savings.

Blankenheim provided a complete evaluation of Rockline’s work centers and now maintains an onsite clinic with a physical therapist. Since then, the company’s OSHA recordable incident rate has dropped to 0.77 per 100 employees. “It’s really pretty incredible,” Scheidt says.

Melissa Samuels, an occupational therapist and national sales manager for Blankenheim, says companies call them in when they see an issue unfolding or to avoid issues from happening.

“What generally happens is a client will identify that maybe they have too many injuries occurring in an area, or maybe they have a problematic machine that they know is going to be coming in from a different plant,” says Samuels. If the company isn’t sure what’s causing a problem, Blankenheim can work around that, too – its staff will visit the plant, take a look at how things are done, tour the facility and ask what the company’s needs are. Then they develop a proposal.

The fix can be as large as redesigning equipment or assembly lines, but more likely the answers are much simpler than that. The smallest changes in the methods used to complete a job can make a big difference and are sometimes what really count.

“Some companies can’t afford to do these major overhaul fixes, so they are looking more for administrative controls and/or a prioritized solution,” Samuels says. A company might decide to make some of the easier process changes immediately, then budget and plan for a larger engineering solution down the road, she says.

Chris Nehrbass, one of Blankenheim’s engineers, says normally they start by looking at three key factors. “One of those would be force – anything that engages or requires the person to use a lot of force. Another thing would be working in very awkward postures, and then a third component would be repetition.”

Nehrbass and Blankenheim’s team of engineers have redesigned equipment and helped companies establish better ways of doing things in manufacturing facilities around the country. Blankenheim, which has about 50 employees, provides services such as ergonomic assessments, onsite industrial therapy, preventative rehab response and industrial engineering. The company also has a web-based job analysis tool to help manage and track injuries and responses.

One of Blankenheim’s clients, Graphics Packaging in Menasha, has been using the company’s services for about two years, says Amie Ziebell, human resources manager for Graphics Packaging.

“We had been struggling with multiple musculoskeletal issues with our employees,” Ziebell says. “It’s not that the job is extremely physical, it’s just that it’s very repetitive.”

Blankenheim started by working with Graphics Packaging employees who had been complaining of sore wrists and elbows and “from the beginning, we started to see successes right away,” Ziebell says.

First, Blankenheim responded with rehab for those employees, then analyzed job functions to determine where the ergonomic issues were. Graphics Packaging is still implementing changes and plans on making more.

“When they come and say, ‘We have these suggestions,’ you have to kind of look at what the cost is compared to the return,” Ziebell says. “We have a couple in process right now that are going to be huge. Huge.”

Graphics Packaging manufactures food cartons, and some of them are large, such as pizza boxes. It can be hard to repetitively “pile off” the boxes, or stacking them to get them ready for shipment, she says.

“We’ve been approved to bring in two pieces of equipment that will help do the heavier stuff for our employees,” Ziebell says.

Manufacturers have found the   cost of bringing in ergonomics  experts and changing processes has been worth the investment.

“We were spending so much on workers’ comp complaints and sending people to the doctor,” Ziebell says. “And it’s not just the direct cost, it’s also the indirect cost of having somebody out for an injury.”

Suzanne Laurent, division manager for WorkPlace Solutions, a division of Orthopedic and Spine Therapy of Appleton, says sometimes it takes a bit of investigation, discussion and observation.

“Sometimes what a person says that they’re doing and what’s on paper – their functional job description – is completely different,” Laurent says. “That’s not saying they’re doing it wrong, but they’re accommodating it to make it go quicker. Sometimes that accommodation is good, and sometimes it’s bad.”

Sometimes a physical therapist will suggest a simple change like opening a box in another way or avoiding a twist at a certain point in the process. Occasionally the solution lies with an individual, but sometimes it pays to look at the entire team, Laurent says.

“You don’t want a six-foot person standing next to a four-foot person,” she says. “Obviously, there’s going to be some ergonomic accommodations that are going to need to be made.”

If the most feasible solution lies in the equipment, sometimes a manufacturer’s own maintenance technicians can provide a fix.

“Sometimes it’s more cost effective for us and for the company if we work with that onsite maintenance person and say, ‘Hey, I’m looking for a lever – I don’t know exactly what I’m looking for, but I need something a little bit more ergonomically correct,’” Laurent says. Often they’ll come up with something that pulls instead of pushes, or moves in a different and less stressful way.

The role of ergonomics in reducing costs and injuries maybe hasn’t totally caught on yet.

“I think ergonomics is still kind of a poor stepchild,” says Nehrbass. “With a focus on just traditional safety, quality and productivity, a lot of times people don’t have the training or understanding of ergonomics. So when processes are brought in, that’s kind of one of those things they don’t consider until after they’ve already made the mistakes.”

One of the things that Blankenheim tries to do is make ergonomics a cultural part of the organization, he says.

Not only will manufacturers see fewer workers’ compensation claims, but they will also see a better “experience mod,” which is a rating that directly affects their insurance premiums, says Tony Brecunier, director of workers compensation at Secura.

A focus on reducing workers’ comp claims is becoming more important as baby boomers reach retirement age.

“As workers are getting older, companies need to take into consideration that their joints may be wearing out, they can’t lift 50 pounds regularly, or be bending and squatting as much as they once were,” Brecunier says. “It’s important to go take a look at the processes, the work flows, to make sure that they are being done ergonomically correct so that there is the least amount of stress on their bodies as possible.”

“So many companies that we’re working with are dealing with an aging workforce,” says Chris Resch, a chiropractor with Schubbe-Resch Chiropractic and Physical Therapy of Appleton and Neenah. One company Resch works with has an average employee age of 54. So issues such as weight management and diabetes come into play as well, he says.

Schubbe-Resch has presented more than 1,000 prevention talks during the last 20 years, reaching more than 30,000 people in the Fox Valley. The clinic also works on site at 14 area companies weekly to meet with employees experiencing aches and pains and offers diagnosis and solutions such as exercise, stretching, heat and ice.

“What we’re really trying to do is to prevent the problem from becoming a bigger problem,” Resch says.

While the kinds of injuries that Blankenheim sees in the workplace varies, “mostly, I think what industry right now struggles with is upper extremity and primarily shoulder, because shoulders in an aging workforce can be problematic,” Samuels says. Shoulder injuries also can be expensive injuries, so it pays to focus on mitigating risk for those kinds of problems.

Companies also are starting to realize that treating outside injuries such as sports-related strains helps prevent workplace injuries.

“It’s a great benefit to employees, and it also helps productivity and morale,” Resch says.

Graphics Packaging, which works with Blankenheim, also offers that service to its employees.

“We have employees who maybe have a sore shoulder from starting  out softball again, or a sore knee,” Ziebell says. “During the time period that Blankenheim is here the therapist will give them stretches and suggestions of things to do.”

The program helps Graphics Packaging because the employees are healthier at work, not suffering from personal injury issues, and resolving outside issues can help prevent workplace injuries. “It affects their production, and it affects their time here if they’re not feeling right,” Ziebell says.

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