Why Proper Ergonomics Are Essential in Manufacturing Workplaces

Ergonomics is the scientific discipline focused on understanding how people interact with their environments. In work settings, people sometimes misinterpret the term as relating primarily to employee comfort. However, ergonomics is much more than that — especially in manufacturing workplaces.

This article lists the benefits of proper ergonomics to manufacturing companies and their workers. It also explains the role industrial manipulators play in improving operations and protecting employee health.

Everyday Examples of Ergonomics

The term ergonomics has its roots in the Greek words “ergon” (work) and “nomoi” (natural law). So, it means working within natural laws. Gravity is an example of a natural law that you don’t want workers fighting.

Imagine picking up a gallon of milk and holding it close to your chest. Minimal effort is required to keep it there. On the other hand, if you lift and hold it at arm’s length, you quickly discover that is an entirely different proposition. You have given gravity an advantage in the arm-extended position, and your ability to hold the milk steady will be short-lived.

A more work-related scenario would be the difference between positioning a computer monitor close enough to you to see it easily versus farther away. In the latter case, you will likely spend much of your day leaning forward with gravity relentlessly pulling your head downward, straining your neck and shoulders.

So, even from those simple examples, it’s clear that proper ergonomics are crucial.

Benefits of Ergonomically Sound Work Environments

Companies that invest time, effort, and capital in reviewing workplace ergonomics and adjusting as needed enjoy many benefits, including:

  • Improved health and safety. Optimizing equipment for ease of use reduces the risk of musculoskeletal injuries like tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and back pain. Consequently, companies have healthier, happier employees and experience fewer injuries and lost workdays. They also have fewer workers’ compensation insurance claims, which saves them money on insurance premiums and other costs.
  • Increased productivity. Ergonomically designed workstations enable people to complete tasks faster and more efficiently. They also can work for more extended periods with fewer of the breaks workers often take to stretch and relieve discomfort. As a result, they can have higher output in the same amount of time.
  • Improved work quality. Poor ergonomics can adversely affect work quality. Conversely, people in ergonomically optimized production areas are equipped to do their best work.
  • Lower costs. While the initial investment in ergonomic equipment and process modifications may seem significant, the long-term savings can be substantial. For example, preventing injuries reduces the need for replacement workers and the associated expenses.
  • Improved employee morale and higher satisfaction. Prioritizing ergonomics demonstrates a commitment to employee well-being and fosters a positive work culture. When employees feel valued and supported, morale improves, increasing higher job satisfaction and engagement.
  • Easier recruiting and increased retention. Investing in the health and safety of employees can create an industry reputation that enables a company to attract and retain the best workers.
  • Improved compliance. Manufacturers (like all businesses) are subject to regulations covering employee health and safety. Failing to meet their obligations can result in fines and other penalties. However, sharpening its focus on ergonomics can help an organization ensure it is complying with the applicable rules and regulations.

How To Improve Ergonomics in Manufacturing Environments

How can manufacturers improve ergonomics at their workplaces? First, it is crucial to perform a thorough ergonomics review. What function takes place at a particular workstation? How do workers complete the task? What risks to their health and well-being are present? At this point, the person or team tasked with recommending improvements is in information-gathering mode. They will propose remedies later. Implementing on-the-fly changes often results in incomplete or short-lived improvements rather than long-term solutions.

Be aware that an ergonomics assessment should include all areas and operations. The fact that no one has historically complained about the setup of an area or suffered injuries doesn’t necessarily mean that it is ergonomically sound. Sometimes, companies are simply fortunate that poor ergonomics have not yet adversely affected workers. Often, that is because employees have found workarounds for inefficient workstation setups — process modifications that may increase risks or cause health and safety problems.

The next step in improving ergonomics is designing solutions. Corrective measures may include actions like:

  • Changing the layout of workstations
  • Raising or lowering equipment
  • Adding or removing tables, chairs, etc.
  • Placing anti-fatigue mats on the floor
  • Changing where or how tools and materials are stored
  • Automating repetitive processes

Industrial manipulators often play a vital role in improving ergonomics in manufacturing workplaces. These systems can improve operations in countless ways.

For example, imagine a setting where employees have historically had to lift and move heavy tubs of materials onto and off a production line. Experienced workers may be able to do this physically demanding work relatively easily at the start of their shift when well rested. However, the same operation may be much more difficult later in their workday as fatigue sets in and their energy declines. As a result, productivity drops, material damage increases, and the risk of injuries rises.

Now, picture the same environment only with a material handling system effortlessly retrieving items from and replacing items on the production line with extraordinary precision in every repetition. Productivity remains high, damage is low or non-existent, and the injury risk is low.

The next step in improving workplace ergonomics is workforce training and education. Instruction should address the solutions that the company will implement and other actions outside of the new systems and processes (proper posture, lifting techniques, etc.).

After a team has implemented ergonomic improvements, they must conduct regular assessments and solicit feedback. Workers often take time to “get a feel for” new systems and processes. What may have seemed like the perfect solution when implemented might need tweaks later. Asking for feedback is vital, as workers might be reluctant to appear ungrateful for the improvements if they suggest post-implementation modifications.

Subsequent ergonomic improvements may also be necessary if product designs, materials, or manufacturing processes change.

Manufacturing Ergonomics: Using a Continual Improvement Approach

Manufacturers must remember that they are not obligated to design and deploy ergonomics solutions throughout the company in one continuous initiative. It’s not uncommon for businesses that haven’t focused on ergonomics to do a company-wide review and come up with a long list of needed improvements that can be overwhelming.

Rather than straining finances, worker time and energy, and other resources, it is often better to roll out ergonomic improvements in a phased approach. A gradual rollout strategy has multiple advantages. It allows stakeholders to assess the effectiveness of changes and whether they have achieved a project’s goals. If the initiative has fallen short of its objectives, the company can make corrections before the next phase is executed. That may be anything from purchasing different equipment to redesigning processes.

A phased approach can also be a more budget-friendly way to improve ergonomics. It allows companies to spread costs across months, fiscal quarters, or years if necessary.

The key is for companies to keep moving forward on these initiatives when and where possible. “Continuous improvement” is a common theme in the manufacturing industry, and it’s an excellent way to view ergonomics.

Logistical Changes to Support Better Ergonomics

In addition to deploying new equipment like material handlers and life-assist devices, companies can also improve ergonomics with logistical changes. For instance, a company where employees remain at the same station throughout their shift might consider rotating workers. Moving them from one task to another within their workday or having them rotate at longer intervals (daily, weekly, etc.) to reduce the strain on specific body parts can be beneficial.

Trends in Manufacturing Ergonomics

The manufacturing ergonomics field continues to expand, with new technologies continually being developed and launched. Wearable “exoskeleton” suits are one example. They help reduce the strain on muscles and joints during physically demanding tasks.

Another example is systems leveraging wearable sensors and artificial intelligence (AI) to monitor ergonomic risks and capture data companies can use to guide process changes. Virtual and augmented reality are also becoming more common in manufacturing environments for designing solutions to ergonomic problems.

These and other technologies are helping companies work more efficiently and productively while protecting their workers.

Working With Experts to Accelerate Ergonomic Improvements

Ergonomics is not a discipline that lends itself to a trial-and-error approach. The investment of time, effort, and capital calls for a more methodical strategy. The fact that changes will impact employee health and safety also necessitates caution. Specifically, manufacturers should develop a plan based on knowledge of available industrial manipulators and proven best practices.

That’s why so many companies turn to Dalmec for assistance. More than an equipment supplier, we serve as ergonomics advisors and collaborators. Our team can provide insights that help manufacturers avoid pitfalls and find the straight path to their desired outcomes.

Contact Dalmec today to learn more about our industrial manipulators, how they can be the cornerstone of better ergonomics, and the many benefits of optimized manufacturing workplaces.

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