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Ergonomics in the Pulp and Paper Sector


January 1, 2004
By Pulp & Paper Canada

Today’s large pulp and paper mills are highly technical, process control environments running 24-hours a day, 365 days a year with most plants on 12-hour shifts. And while new processes and technologi…

Today’s large pulp and paper mills are highly technical, process control environments running 24-hours a day, 365 days a year with most plants on 12-hour shifts. And while new processes and technologies have resulted in generally lower physical demands for most workers, they have created new ergonomic problems.

Top 3 Ergonomic Issues:

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1) Static work postures and a lack of task variety for control room operators. It is not unusual for a control room operator to spend almost all of a 12-hour shift sitting down. As a result, many mills have provided control room workers with ‘ergonomic’ chairs or, in some cases, stationary bikes or treadmills. Unfortunately, both of these solutions do not address the root cause of the problem. Control room jobs do not typically provide enough physical or mental variety for workers and this can lead to muscle pain and discomfort, even with the best of chairs. This may lead to mental ‘fatigue’ and an increased probability of error.

2) Maintenance tasks. With old and new mills alike, process equipment is not designed with maintenance personnel or tasks in mind. Maintenance workers perform tasks that involve high forces, awkward postures, and working in areas where there is inadequate clearance and space for the worker and his/her tools. As the level of technology increases this will become an even more critical issue. Dealing with maintenance-related ergonomic problems does require a significant amount of effort because maintenance personnel perform a variety of tasks during a shift and in many different areas of the mill/plant.

3) Production workers in most pulp and paper mills do not have enough physical and/or mental task variety ‘designed’ into their jobs. The problem is inherent in the way that jobs are structured and classified. Workers are assigned to jobs that require them to perform a small set of well-defined tasks. These jobs are physically demanding, with moderate to high forces and awkward postures. Or else they are sedentary in nature, with long periods spent looking at computer monitors. Rarely, however, do jobs involve a combination of the two. Pulp and paper companies and the unions that represent the workers within them need to begin to seriously discuss the gains that result from well-designed job rotation schemes and job enlargement initiatives. These gains include improved worker health, well-being, satisfaction and safety — and, for the company, improved quality, productivity, profitability, competitiveness, and longevity. Note that if you really want to deal with the ‘problem’ of an aging work force, then you have little choice but to actively pursue the implementation of good job rotation / job enlargement schemes in the workplace.

There are, of course, other ergonomic issues in the pulp and paper mills. Examples include manual cutting of wires on recycle bales; high force to push large rolls of paper; awkward postures required to set up winders and slitters. Then there are the shut-down, start-up and breakdown situations that require normally sedentary operators to perform physically demanding tasks (climbing ladders, opening valves that are in less than optimal locations, etc.) and so on. And even though the specific ergonomic problems found in pulp and paper mills may be unique, the root causes of these problems are not. The equipment used to produce pulp and paper has not, typically, been designed with any real consideration for how the workers interact with (i.e. operate, and/or maintain) the process equipment. Also, the ultimate user, (i.e. the worker), has little or no say in how the equipment is designed or installed. There are also historical and cultural issues that make it difficult to implement administrative controls such as job rotation and job enlargement. Many unions are not willing to consider job rotation schemes due to concerns about job reductions and seniority, and management often sees only the added expense and not the long-term gains.

Great Gains. Less Pain

Some ergonomic improvements do require a significant capital investment. However, many significant improvements can be realized with little or no cost. Of course, ergonomics is most cost effective when applied in the early stages of the design and planning cycle for any piece of equipment or new process.

For existing workplaces and processes, ergonomics is most successful when a participative approach is used. Participative approaches ensure that key stakeholders (workers, supervisors, quality and maintenance personnel, etc.) are fully involved in the identification and assessment of ergonomic problems and also in the identification, selection and planning for any solutions.

If Canada’s pulp and paper industry wishes to remain competitive and be as profitable as possible they need to make a concerted effort to improve the ergonomics of their workplace and organizational designs so that their workers can truly work smarter, not harder.

When it comes down to it, this is what ergonomics is all about.

Jonathan Tyson, MASc, CPE (Certified Professional Ergonomist), Pulp and Paper Health and Safety Association


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