Ergonomics and processes

By Camille Major, MS, MBA, CPE

Cheaper by the Dozen by Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth Jr. is a well-loved story about the Gilbreth family and their 12 children. We all know the story of how the Gilbreths examined their lives to find ways to improve their activities to flow more efficiently and save time. This is the foundation of our Industrial Engineering undergraduate curriculum and most of the courses that follow. It is in our IE blood to find ways to improve processes. To improve a process, Industrial Engineers usually focus on how to make it cheaper, better, faster! It’s our mantra! But we cannot forget another word that needs to be part of this mantra – SAFER!

Typically we examine processes to identify waste and then eliminate it. Machines are easy. People are another matter. Yet IEs must ask: “How can we make the humans more efficient?” I will keep it simple….the same way we eliminate other inefficiencies! By examining the material flow, time to complete tasks, double handling of parts, delivery routes, quality defects and production, we can find ways to improve ergonomics and efficiency. By reducing the exposure to ergonomic risks, we can reduce the potential for ergonomic injury. Remove the extra walking steps and you have improved the energy expenditure of the employee. Removing the double or triple handling of products, you have just reduced the amount of weight handled per shift. Efficiency improves as ergonomic risk is reduced.

Design your process for minimal ergonomic impact. And then design controls so that employees make the efficient and healthy choice. The default answer that is commonly used is…training. That is merely an administrative control that relies on a human response. Better, consider an engineering control that will ensure a long-term solution that will keep an employee safe regardless to if the employee is well-trained or new to the job. For example, limit tool selections to only ergonomic ones, such as battery-powered screen drivers or compressed air instead of hand-operated. Set up work stations to be adjustable to the employee, but require the work station design changes to be approved by an ergonomist before they rearrange it.

Is the employee required to move product from Station A to B, C, then back to A, then to station D? Why are there repeated steps or duplicate opportunities to handle the product? Would you be able to consolidate those movements? Sometimes we add and change the process to meet current business needs and neglect a thorough review from start to finish. One example is a case where moving the material handling lift cart required jerking and strong forces to turn tight corners in the factory. This led to a back injury. A closer look showed that workstations and pallets had been added throughout the years without a thorough examination of the layout as it related to the current process flow.

My final tip is, don’t do it alone. Form a solution focused team. Anyone that has ownership in the process can be on the team. After all, we love fixing ergonomics issues but, we don’t want to create an additional problem somewhere else. With a team, you can be sure all perspectives are represented.

Tipping my Ergo Hat to all of you!