|Installing standing platforms and adjustable-height isolators can make equipment suitable for workers of all sizes. Photo courtesy of AstraZeneca.
A common example of a mismatch between human abilities and task design is when employees sit parallel to a filling or packaging line, instead of facing it. This position is usually taken because there isn’t enough knee and leg space under the machinery, but sitting parallel to equipment results in twisting and reaching, increasing the likelihood of stress or musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).
Ergonomics prevents situations like these, by evaluating worker abilities and limitations and taking them into account in designs. Key MSD risk factors include:
- awkward posture
- contact stress
More manufacturers today recognize the importance of integrating proactive ergonomic solutions into their business processes (see BEST PRACTICES FROM AROUND THE WORLD, below). “We used to be focused on training employees just to be aware of ergonomic issues,” says Robb Patterson, ergonomics team leader at Pfizer Global Manufacturing’s Kalamazoo, Mich. site. “Today, we’re getting our engineers to think about human factors during the design stage.” The industry is moving from a reactive to proactive stance towards ergonomics, Patterson says.
Good ergonomics foundations
Successful ergonomics programs are systematic and sustainable, and put in writing. They include clear goals, focus on risk, and are integrated into existing processes and operations. They must be measurable, visible and focused on continuous improvement.
More sophisticated workplace ergonomics programs share the following characteristics:
- management commitment and support
- extensive training on risk factors and ergonomics
- hazard analysis and control
- strong medical management
- regular program evaluation
U.S. regulatory requirements for ergonomics are generally limited to the General Duty Clause. Except for a few state OSHA programs, ergonomics programs are recognized as a best practice by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and other organizations.
The preferred method for controlling risk factors is through engineering controls. Engineering controls involve a change in the physical features of the workplace, and might include reducing the weight of objects, changing work surface heights or purchasing lifting aids.
When engineering solutions are not feasible, administrative controls are used. These controls are less effective than engineering controls because they don’t eliminate the hazard. They include longer rest breaks, using more employees to perform lifting or certain tasks, and improving maintenance for tools and work areas.
Work practice controls such as personal protective equipment (PPE), are also used, but are the least effective methods, since the employee is still exposed to the risk factor.
|Employees at Pfizer’s Kalamazoo site inspect and pack Gelfoam sponges, used for dental surgery. Previously (above), inspectors sat parallel to the pace belt and had to reach over the work area to grab product off the belt. Photo courtesy of Pfizer.
||After a redesign (above), workstations are perpendicular to the belt, which has reduced worker reaches from 24 in. to about 6 in. Stations and chairs are also adjustable, allowing workers to stand or sit at preferred heights. Photo courtesy of Pfizer.
Ergonomics at Biogen
Several years ago, Biogen Idec implemented a full-blown ergonomics program after it realized that most of its workers’ compensation costs stemmed from poor ergonomics.
Key to the program, modeled after NIOSH and OSHA recommendations, is a written corporate policy that explicitly correlates ergonomics with the company’s core values of worker safety and a high quality of work life.
While regulations in specific countries or states may direct some aspects of the program, Biogen Idec has gone beyond minimum recommendations — i.e., simply documenting a written program — to create a Global Ergonomics Guideline for Office, Laboratory and Manufacturing areas.
An Ergonomics Steering Committee identifies and addresses current issues in ergonomics and heads off future problems by making ergonomic principles a part of new projects, purchases and personnel hires. It also provides for ergonomics teams made up of plant workers and safety professionals to address specific ergonomics issues that arise. Workers are encouraged to contact designated experts in their global regions.
Where most companies still wait until after an injury has been reported to evaluate a manufacturing area or workstation, Biogen trains employees when they are hired on workstation requirements and hazards. During renovation or relocation, the Ergonomics Steering Committee reviews design plans and equipment for potential risk factors and provides input into heights, reaches, equipment use, accessibility and other aspects key to design based on a careful review with the end users and the design team.
Welcoming informed workers
In working with engineers, the steering committee’s goal is to ask the right questions: How much would that filter weigh when full? How do you propose to move it?
Over time and with many successes achieved, plant and design engineers have become accustomed to the Steering Committee’s input and now often address ergonomics issues on their own. A culture has taken root that encourages all employees to report incidents and near misses, and to participate actively in creating viable solutions.
Manufacturers often express concern that educating workers in risk factor identification and prevention will produce a barrage of complaints, and even lawsuits. Biogen has addressed this issue by creating an electronic system to record and manage all ergonomics concerns and requests for workstation evaluations. The system not only records all transactions and keeps an ongoing history of projects, but also provides immediate employee feedback and the amount of time that corrective action will take. The company has found that technology is an excellent way to sustain ergonomics at individual sites, and share best practices worldwide.