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Manufacturing makeover

By Vanessa Chris

If you’re like most manufacturers, you probably approach ergonomic issues on an ‘as needed’ basis. If there’s been an injury or a recurring problem on one of your lines, for example, you’ll take care of it. Otherwise, ergonomics doesn’t often find itself on the top of your ‘to do’ list.

According to Shannon Buchner, president of Working Environments Inc., a Windsor, Ont.-based firm providing ergonomic solutions to manufacturers, it’s a scenario most of her customers find themselves in.

“Most manufacturers are very reactive when it comes to ergonomics,” she says. “I’d say only about 50 per cent have been proactive and consulted an ergonomist before coming through our door.”

The thing is, most companies would be well served in making sure their plant floors are more ergonomically sound. According to the WSIB, musculoskeletal disorders from ergonomic issues in the workplace account for 42 per cent of all lost time claims. This translates into 42 per cent of lost time claim costs and 50 per cent of all lost time days.

Remedying the problem doesn’t always have to cost a lot, either. In many cases, a company-wide education program is enough to ensure employees are implementing proper ergonomic practices and identifying potential ergonomic risks in their day-to-day activities. Creating an ergonomics committee made up of members of the purchasing, manufacturing and administrative departments can also act as a watchdog to ensure potential hazards are fixed before becoming WSIB claims.

To get started on your company’s ergonomic makeover, here are a few simple steps to follow.

1. Reorganize reach zones

‘Awkward posture’ is one of the most commonly cited reasons for musculoskeletal injuries — and it can arise from virtually any plant floor activity.  

The majority of plant floor workers store their tools, or commonly used materials, in places beyond their immediate reach — typically in bins behind or in front of them. Similarly, the height of the employee can affect their ability to operate machinery, since many manufacturing equipments are built for taller statures, forcing smaller people to physically extend themselves to operate them properly.

While these factors can easily go unnoticed, over time they can lead to serious muscle injuries.

“Continuously reaching forward for your tools requires the use of extra shoulder muscles,” says Nancy Gowan, president of Wallacetown, Ont.-based ergonomic consultancy firm, Gowan Consulting. “If you’re reaching behind, you tend to twist your back instead of moving your feet, and that can lead to back problems.”

Items that require access on a regular basis should be situated in the ‘simplest reach zone’. This means that an individual’s elbows should always be at their side while reaching for these objects. Items that require access less frequently — say no more than one-third of the day — should be placed in the next reach zone. When reaching for them, an individual’s elbows might move, but not above their chest.

Items that need to be accessed occasionally can be situated in a place that requires the individual to reach their arm all the way out and perhaps lean forward a bit, although they should never be placed beyond the length of the individual’s fingertips.

Ensuring the appropriate tools or parts are in the appropriate reach zones takes a bit of organization and forethought. There are also a variety of products out there that can aid in the process. For example, there are a number of lifting and tilting devices on the market that can make workstations and machinery more adjustable, so they can be accessed by individuals of any height or stature. There is also a variety of lightweight flooring out there, so shorter individuals can easily pull it out when they’re working on a conveyor, for example, and then tuck it away when they’re not using it.

Buchner says choosing appropriate shelving units that easily fit into a specific workstation is also important. The bins shelved on these units should be tilted, or feature lids that flip downward, so picking items out of them requires little to no reaching. For certain workstations, she says creating a ‘cockpit’ type of set-up has proven to be rather popular — where a section of the work bench is cut out so the worker is closer to their tools and machinery.

2. Minimize straining forces

In ergonomics, the concept of ‘forces’ usually includes any activity that involves pushing, pulling or lifting on a regular basis. In a typical manufacturing workstation, employees may find themselves lifting heavy dies onto machines, or transporting heavy parts onto dollies.

As a rule of thumb, pushing is always better than pulling and both of those activities are better than lifting. In general, lifting things above shoulder level on a regular basis isn’t a good thing, and the activity should be reduced as much as possible.

This can be done by setting up a workstation with adjustable line rollers. These racks can easily be aligned with a specific machine, so heavy objects — such as dies — can effortlessly roll along and slide into place.

Ensuring forklifts, power walkies, trollies and other tools are readily available to employees will also go a long way in preventing unnecessary lifting. If employees think it will be easier — or faster — to lift something rather than grab a forklift, they likely will.

If something has to be lifted, make sure your employees know and utilize proper lifting techniques. Stretching before lifting, and asking for help with awkward or heavy loads, can minimize injuries. Taking an organized approach to various tasks — so lighter and heavier loads are varied — can also eliminate the strain on the body.

3. Add some extra padding

Standing on a concrete floor for hours on end can wreak havoc on an individual’s body — namely their feet, knees and back. And while anti-fatigue matting has been used since the 1920s to prevent these injuries, there are now newer — and more proven — products out there.

“What most people don’t know is that there are different types of matting out there. We offer newer options with ergonomic studies attached to them — so they’re proven to prevent injuries,” says Buchner.

Employees whose duties require them to travel the plant floor might be better suited to anti-fatigue matting that attaches to an individual’s shoe. This tends to work better than padded insoles, which often wear out quickly.

Extra padding or protection should also be used on machines that tend to vibrate. Anti-vibration gloves or coverings for machine parts will reduce the likelihood of vibration-related stress or injuries.

4. Switch it up

Tasks that require endless repetitive movements tend to cause injuries because individuals are using the same muscles, day in and day out. One way of averting this type of strain is by implementing a ‘job rotation’ system.

By allowing employees to spend a few hours at a variety of workstations throughout the day, you’re not only enabling them to use different muscles, but they will be more cognitively engaged and less likely to make a mistake due to fatigue.

Encouraging workers to perform specific stretches every hour also saves time and injuries in the long run.

“Many manufacturers are worried that stretching reduces production,” says Gowan. “The truth is, simple stretches between cycles improve productivity, quality of work, morale and they alleviate pain and fatigue.”

The difficulty in implementing ergonomic practices in a manufacturing environment is that, unlike in office settings, every manufacturing workstation is different. If your company has been experiencing a lot of musculoskeletal injuries in recent years, consider hiring an ergonomist to do a thorough assessment and analysis of your manufacturing lines. While the assessment and resulting solutions might cost a bit more money, it can save you a lot more down the line.


Vanessa Chris is an award-winning journalist based in Toronto. You can contact her at [/em][a href=""][em]


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