The right flex

Area manufacturers place emphasis on ergonomics to improve wellness

Posted on Mar 15, 2018 :: Back Office Operations
Posted by , Insight on Manufacturing Staff Writer

A career in manufacturing can be tough — particularly when it comes to the subsequent wear and tear on your body.

With that in mind, more and more manufacturing environments are placing increasing emphasis on ergonomics to prevent injury and improve worker wellness.

“The general definition of ergonomics can be viewed as how we are accommodating and ensuring the comfort of each individual employee on the floor so we can maximize their output and effort with minimal disruption,” Jonathan Webb, vice president of workplace strategy for KI, says.

Put simply, ergonomics has two major goals: increasing efficiency and improving worker safety — whether that’s in manufacturing or in a more traditional office environment.

Sit-to-stand workstations are a commonly cited example. By providing office employees with various positions from which they can do their daily work, employers can improve productivity while also preventing injuries — such as posture problems and other aches and pains that result from remaining in one position all day.

In manufacturing environments, where there’s large machinery, heavy lifting and plenty of risks for injuries, ergonomics has become increasingly important. But, in an industry that requires so much manual labor, companies have had to rise to the challenge to develop innovative approaches and solutions to ensure the health and safety of their plant and factory employees.

Local company efforts run the gamut — from wellness programs to the design of physical workspaces.

“On every job site at every Miron project, we stretch in the morning,” Steve Tyink, vice president of business innovation at Miron Construction Co. Inc. who frequently collaborates with KI to design solutions with ergonomics in mind, says. “We found that 60 percent of our injuries were strains and sprains, mainly in the lower back. This program has virtually eliminated strains and sprains from our workforce.”

KI also emphasizes physical activity as a method of prevention.

“Every KI employee is able to take up to 90 minutes for lunch if they’re going to work out in our wellness facility,” Webb says, while also noting that KI recently added a second exercise facility within the plant itself so that those employees have easier access.

Georgia-Pacific Corp. stresses wellness and safety for employees by having representatives from Bellin Health on staff to take steps such as creating job-specific wellness plans, providing early intervention when they spot potential risks or problems, and offering advice, tips and feedback to employees on how they can perform their tasks in a manner that’s both safe and efficient.

Programs like those all help to foster a people-first culture that promotes all-around wellness. But when it comes to the physical manufacturing work environment for employees, local companies are making strides there as well. 

While features like adjustable-height work stations and comfort mats are likely the first solutions to come to mind when thinking of ergonomics, there are plenty of other issues to be addressed.

For example, appropriate lighting is something that is frequently top of mind in manufacturing environments, which often are windowless, says Dan Mahlik, president of Duet Resource Group — the sales agency for KI in Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska.

“There are some really great products that bring natural light into the manufacturing environment,” Mahlik says. He mentions that solar light tubes are able to provide natural light without needing to put windows into the plant itself.

Other advancements such as filtration systems to reduce dust particles and improve air quality and personal protective equipment (including high-visibility apparel, ear protection and eye protection) all fall under the ergonomics umbrella as well.

“It’s not individual thoughts,” Tyink says “It’s more about wellness and the well-being of the entire workforce.”

Repetitive strain injuries are the nation’s most common and costly occupational health issue, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration. In manufacturing environments that often require employees to perform the same task repetitively, this has been another point of focus — resulting in shifts in areas such as processes and work approaches.

“KI provides ongoing training in order to cross-train every employee to avoid repetitive stress types of injuries,” Webb says. “Training our technicians to do different things enables them to move around throughout the day and takes them out of the situations where they’re forcibly required to do the same thing over and over.”

There’s one more thing that’s changing the game in terms of safety in the manufacturing industry: automation.

“Manufacturing itself has changed quite a bit,” Mike Kawleski, public affairs manager at Georgia-Pacific, says. “Modern manufacturing is not your grandfather’s manufacturing.

“There’s still some repetitive work in some areas, but it’s not like the old days when you had a lot of hand packing, hand stacking, repetitive motion type of stuff,” Kawleski says. “Automation has really helped to ease that burden.”

“Years ago, there was a lot more vertical up and down and lifting,” Mahlik says. “Today, automation provides the ability to design manufacturing facilities that accommodate flow.”

As an example, Mahlik says hydraulics ensure that items are positioned at the appropriate height for workers — as opposed to employees having to lift or move those pieces themselves.

Safety undoubtedly is a top concern when it comes to ergonomics in manufacturing. But experts are quick to say there are other benefits for employers as well.

“There’s an ROI to be had for employers who really pay attention to addressing some of these issues,” Webb says.

“In today’s world, where getting employees to join your company and stay in your company is a key motivator, you need to promote the healthiest work environment and a place where employees can thrive,” Mahlik says. “And ergonomics is definitely a part of that.”