Ergonomics and the work environment

By Camille Major, MS, MBA, CPE

You are a well trained engineer and are ready to focus on lean manufacturing, Six Sigma, return on investment (ROI), etc. And now you have an extra responsibility of focusing on safety and ergonomics. As engineers, we like numbers, data, percentages, decimals and equations – the quantifiable information that describes the world in which we work. A decision based on data and numbers ensures that the answer is repeatable and reliable. This is why we love engineering! So can we find “real” engineering valid data when resolving ergonomics issues, a seemingly qualitative problem? The answer is: YES!

I am sure you have taken a look around and noticed the population that makes up your workforce. You know that people have different strength capabilities, anthropometrics, and basically different body designs. You are ready to optimize their contributions. But there is more to the equation.

The environment is a broad term to describe where our people are working. Not only is their environment defined by the temperature, humidity, indoor or outdoor location, climate controlled or variable, remote location. It also includes the design of their workstation and/or office space. There are so many variations to the work environment. Yet the same rules for ergonomics apply: planning for the worst case scenario, adjustability, minimization of movement and stress loads, conservative guidelines and accommodating your workforce. Here are some quick tips to help:

  • Is the workstation adjustable in height to accommodate for different workers?
  • Is there leg clearance (if sitting) or toe clearance (if standing) when at the workstation?
  • Can the employee reach all frequently used items with ease and minimum movement?
  • Can each task be performed while maintain a neutral comfortable posture?
  • Is the lighting adequate for the task and also various vision levels?
  • Is the temperature/humidity/air flow adequate for the work that is performed?
  • Is there walking, bending, twisting, reaching required?
  • Are there other safety hazards present?

To help you determine if the answers to the questions are acceptable for ergonomics, I refer to commonly accepted ergonomics standards & guidelines. My personal favorite is Kodak’s Ergonomic Design for People at Work, 2nd Edition (ISBN: 978-0-471-41863-4). This reference book can assist in a variety of work environments. I have used it quite often for illumination requirements and even stair or step design. If budget is a concern, there are other free resources that can help. Try and search for “ergonomics.” You can even search for “Ergonomics eTools.” There are eTools to help with a variety of work environments such as computer workstations, electrical work, baggage handling, sewing and more. Save this one in your bookmarks!

And if you are just starting to wear your ergonomics hat, NIOSH has an excellent book to help you setup your ergonomics program. It is the NIOSH Publication 97-117: Elements of Ergonomics Programs A Primer Based on Workplace Evaluations of Musculoskeletal Disorders. You can find it here.

These are just a couple of references to help you get started or enhance your current program. After all, if IEs have the job of improving efficiency, the productivity of the human side of the equation is paramount.

Tipping my Ergo Hat to all of you!