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Considering the human factor

When used in a reactive fashion, ergonomics is effective in correcting the causes of overuse-type injuries. But whenever possible, it is always more cost-effective to identify areas of high risk, and...


June 1, 2006
By Pulp & Paper Canada

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When used in a reactive fashion, ergonomics is effective in correcting the causes of overuse-type injuries. But whenever possible, it is always more cost-effective to identify areas of high risk, and pro-actively take care of the problem before it causes injury.

One area of company business that rarely comes under the glare of the ergonomics spotlight is procurement. The benefits of adding ergonomics to the purchasing checklist are potentially huge, as you will read below. The best time to ensure that a company is purchasing equipment that will be a good fit for the task and the workers is before that purchase is made. The following is an account of a company that paid a hefty price for not including ergonomic considerations before making a large purchasing decision.

When it was time to replace their fleet of forklift and clamp trucks, “Company A” performed what they considered due diligence in the procurement process. They looked at cost, ease of maintenance, reliability and so on. They were ultimately swayed by the trucks’ state-of-the-industry engine, which promised to give years of reliable service and associated low maintenance costs. However, they did not address one critical and ultimately costly component: the human factor. How were the workers going to interact with this new piece of machinery?

Within weeks of delivery of the new trucks, they had their answer. Operators started to complain of excessive neck and back strain, and those complaints eventually developed into injuries. The injuries resulted in lost time and increased demands on the relatively healthy employees, until they also developed symptoms. This crisis prompted an urgent call to an ergonomics consultant to provide possible remedies to the forklift truck issue.

An ergonomist from BodyLogic Health Management watched the drivers at work, broke down their tasks, identified risky postures and movements, interviewed the drivers, and studied the cabs’ interior layout. It became very clear that the dramatic rise in the injury rates was because the company had been less concerned about the ergonomics of the operators than about other issues.

Ergonomics falls low on the list of priorities for a number of reasons. Many companies do not feel the cost of ergonomic equipment will pay off in the long run and others sacrifice ergonomics for versatility. Smaller companies do not have the resources to pay for specialized trucks and look for versatility above everything else; this more than often creates risks for the operators. Other companies even feel that it would be more cost effective to redesign the work environment and layout to alleviate some of the problems caused by equipment design limitations. All things considered, it is still the most cost-effective option to consider the ergonomics of the operators when making a decision to purchase capital intensive equipment.

For “Company A,” research into remedies and alternative cab design turned up a number of retrofit options, all of them costly. Working with the ergonomics consultant, “Company A” decided on the most cost-effective option that would still ensure the health of its employees. In the short term, the consultant designed a number of movements and stretches the drivers could perform during their shift to help alleviate the stresses and strains that had been causing the injuries. As a long-term solution, “Company A” decided on a 180-degree retrofit option that allowed drivers to swivel fully to the right and the left.

Careful analysis of an equipment purchase from all angles might be a little more costly and time consuming, but will always be preferable to injuries, lost time, production disruptions and even more costly and unsatisfactory retrofits. The overall cost of ignoring ergonomics is far higher than purchasing ergonomic equipment in the first place. When making the decision to purchase capital intensive equipment:

* Identify equipment need

* Perform a detailed assessment of all tasks that interact with this equipment or machinery

* Review equipment options. This review should include managers, supervisors AND line employees who will actually be using the equipment

* If possible, demo the equipment before it is purchased. If that is not possible, go to where the equipment is currently in use and ask questions of the current users

* Make the final purchasing decision confident that you have thoughtfully considered all options and looked at the decision from all perspectives, including the employee who will use the equipment.

The aim of ergonomics is to ensure that humans and technology work in complete harmony, with the equipment and tasks aligned to human characteristics. Incorporating ergonomic principles from the beginning of the purchasing process will always be more effective in terms of cost, time and employee health and safety; it will result in higher productivity for an extended period of time. While the costs of purchasing well designed, ergonomic equipment may seem daunting, the total cost of ownership will inevitably be less than paying for overuse injuries down the line.

Susan Rock has been an Expert Consultant with BodyLogic Health Management for 13 years and Peter Marshall works with BodyLogic Health Management as an Ergonomics Specialist. BodyLogic Health management is a leading provider of on-site injury prevention programs. BodyLogic provides comprehensive workplace assessments and employee training with results-driven techniques and high quality educational materials. For more information, please visit the website at www.backlogic.com or call 1.800.887.8018.