Ergonomics is the practice of designing and organizing workplaces to optimize workers’ capacity, both for productivity and for their health. It is multidisciplinary and draws from a variety of fields as diverse as industrial engineering, computer science, biomechanics, safety engineering, and psychology.
Virtually every workforce in the world uses ergonomics. The control rooms of big data use it, and so do small business offices. Factory floor workers and astronauts in the space station deploy ergonomic principles. Medical devices and consumer products both follow its design as well.
Ergonomics focuses on a number of elements. Its design focuses on making sure that workers sit in ways that do not cause strain on their backs. It targets the space over which any worker, from assembler to administrator, has to reach to get the materials they need, whether they are boards for Silicon Valley’s chips or pens and legal pads for corporate strategy.
It makes sure assembly line workers walk comfortable and efficient distances. Most importantly, it minimizes or eliminates repetitive strain.
Ergonomics: the health and safety benefits
Repetitive strain, lifting heavy equipment, and frequent use of keyboards can cause all strain and injury. Overall, worker injury costs U.S. companies $1 billion every week. A properly designed ergonomic workforce, however, can reduce both injury and costs considerably.
Statistics tell this story. Several decades ago, John Deere and Company, the U.S. agricultural equipment manufacturer, extensively redesigned its work areas using ergonomics. The result? An 83 percent drop in employee back injuries.
This not only improved worker health and productivity, but it contributed to the corporate bottom line. Deere’s worker compensation costs fell nearly one-third over the next five years.
Companies often analyze injury patterns before calling in ergonomic engineers. A mainframe computer manufacturer, AT&T Global Information Solutions, for example, examined its injury logs.
They found the most common injuries were lifting, fastening, and keyboarding. A combination of workstation redesign and employee training brought a 75 percent reduction in worker compensation costs in the first year alone.
Following that success, the company restructured the work process more significantly. They moved from assembly lines to worker-built computer cabinets. Ergonomic design in this case meant assemblers were involved in a greater variety of movements rather than a few constantly repetitive ones.
It also meant they shifted between sitting and standing rather than remaining in one position. As a result, the company saved nearly $1.5 million in workers’ compensation costs, and significantly increased the number of days that went injury-free.
Ergonomics and the aging workforce
While ergonomics is important to every segment of the workforce, it is particularly significant to the older workforce. It’s a fact that older people have less strength, balance, and flexibility. Their reaction time may be delayed as well, and they may lose speed, manual dexterity, and hearing.
As a result, older workers are at higher risk of suffering musculoskeletal disorders and related injuries. The U.S. workforce is aging, too. In three years, it is projected that 25 percent of the workforce will be 55 and older.
Nearly 17 percent are going to be 65 or over. Ergonomics can be very helpful in ensuring these workers can work productively and safely, and they can benefit the rest of the workforce with their experience.
Still important in the age of automation
Even in the age of automation, people still continue to be extraordinarily important in the manufacturing plants of the future. While robots may do repetitive tasks, humans who can work with robots, as well as plan and oversee manufacturing processes, may even be more important than ever.
Many processes in manufacturing plants are highly complex and require humans. Implementing proper work-safety procedures will decrease accidents and strain. Managers can facilitate the optimization of productivity and decrease the risk of injuries by taking proactive steps to make workplaces more ergonomically effective. These steps can include:
- Reviewing the data. Where do the most accidents or injuries happen? Chart the occurrence for at least six months. What processes and equipment are involved in the most frequent occurrences?
- Exploring the area. Once a manager has pinpointed where the most accidents and injuries occur, examine the area. Are there ways for tools and workers to be brought into better alignment? Positions that need to be adjusted? Equipment that needs to be redesigned? Lighting that needs to be better?
- Involving the workers. No one knows the ins and outs of a job like the workers who do it. Companies who have achieved success with ergonomic redesign, such as John Deere, interface with the workers in both planning and rollout and ask for suggestions and ideas.
Ergonomics is important for productivity, safety, and health — and it is more important than ever as workforce’s age and human workers became more scarce, yet more significant.
This article was written by Megan Ray Nichols. If you enjoyed this article, please visit her page Schooled by Science.
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