The tendency towards lean manufacturing principles has the president of the Association of Canadian Ergonomists a bit worried. While the idea is to remove waste from processes — including excess walking, reaching and down time, in order to make workplaces more efficient — the Japanese concept is often misused in North America, says Judy Village, who is also an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Public Health in Vancouver.
“If it’s not implemented carefully, what it can do is it can increase work intensity and it can then increase injuries,” she says.
Lean can be implemented in such a way that is good for the worker, but it must be done in conjunction with the ergonomics of the workplace, Village explains.
“Make sure you’re not just reducing the waste but you’re reducing also the awkward and repetitive motions and heavy motions as well,” she says. “So, they can go hand-in-hand or they can work against each other.”
Now in its 51st year, the Association of Canadian Ergonomists brings together ergonomists from across the country for continuing education and networking, and promotes ergonomics to employers and the public. What started out as a small group of scientists in the defense, aviation and nuclear power industries has now grown to over 500 members practising in a wide variety of industries with a “huge presence in occupational health and safety,” says Village.
Another trend that is on the radar of the association is robotics and autonomous systems.
“A lot of this is being driven by ‘We can make this,’ but who is really thinking about how the human interacts in the system?” says Village. “The challenge will be that there still needs to be a person and what is that person doing with the technology? Are they driving the technology or is the technology driving them?”
While it is good to take away some of the dangerous, heavy and repetitive work from humans and put it on machines, the work that’s left over must match people’s capabilities.
“People are great at thinking, being creative, at coming up with new solutions, planning and so are you giving interesting work to a person or are you just replacing the mundane work with a computer and still leaving mundane work for the person?”
Ergonomists are often involved with the design of websites, computer interfaces and large control room displays. IT may design the software, but they don’t think about what the worker is doing with that software — that’s where ergonomists come in.
“People will tell you they have to repeatedly hit certain keys or tap buttons and they get overuse injuries because of that, or it’s inefficient and they make mistakes or there’s required boxes that they have to move through that just takes crazy amounts of time,” Village says. “Thinking about the interaction with the person early is really important.”
There is a proven link between the quality of an individual’s work and how their work was designed.
“If you have a healthier, happier worker, you have a worker who is going to be more efficient, more productive, is going to give better customer service, is going to stay in the workplace longer, so the benefits go far beyond just injuries.”
Good ergonomics makes good business sense, Village adds. It examines every interaction in the workplace that involves a worker — whether that be with another worker, a machine or a tool — and that impacts productivity.
“It’s about designing safe, efficient, interesting, effective work, both for good work performance but also for reducing injury. It’s about worker performance as well as worker health, safety and comfort.”
The profile of ergonomics is increasing globally and there are more and more requirements for human factors in different sectors. In Australia, for example, no transit system can be built without thorough ergonomic assessments of every aspect of the system, Village says, including control rooms, rail cars and driver interfaces.
“There is a world-wide trend for more ergonomics requirements, especially in complex systems, so hopefully Canada will start to see some of that too,” she says, adding it’s already present in the nuclear and aviation industries.
Village encourages employers to include ergonomics in any new renovations or purchases to make sure they are not buying or building something that could pose issues for workers. For example, they could purchase a piece of equipment with a very confusing interface that would lead to all kinds of errors.
Recently, Village got a call asking for an ergonomic assessment before construction began on a water treatment plant.
“That is fantastic because then you can look at: Are the valves at the right height? Is there enough access for somebody to get in to reach those valves? Is the force correct? What about when a maintenance worker has to replace the pump, can they get at it?”
This proactive approach to ergonomics is something Village would like to see all employers adopt.
“(We want to) increase the application of ergonomics, especially early in design rather than waiting for injuries and problems to occur.”
This article originally appeared in the April/May 2019 issue of COS.