A Day in the Life of an Ergonomist

Utility Player: Phil La Duke explores how human factors engineering is used to find the perfect balance of the concurrent priorities between manual labor productivity and worker health and safety.

One of the fastest growing roles in the field of safety is the ergonomic specialist, or ergonomist. Any crossword puzzle enthusiast knows that “erg” is a unit of work and that term identifies the position of the ergonomist as one of the most skilled safety professionals working in safety today.

An ergonomist is trained in making the intricate interactions between people safer by drawing from the human factors sciences of psychology, engineering, industrial design, graphic design, statistics, operations research and anthropometry. This scientific understanding of the properties of human capability is applied to designing, developing and deploying manufacturing systems and services. His heavy emphasis on how the physical and cognitive properties of humans and their social behavior influence the function of an operation often give him the label of human factors engineer.

Regardless of his title, the true calling of the ergonomist is to find the perfect balance of the concurrent priorities between productivity and worker health and safety. This is far more than being just a specialist in safety because, in some respects, these skills intersect the fields of engineering, continuous improvement, and traditional safety. Useful and versatile in a variety of manufacturing assignments, ergonomic specialists are rapidly becoming the utility players of the safety world.

Many consumers are familiar with the commercial applications of this discipline through the growing popularity of ergonomically designed furniture and office configurations, but perhaps the most significant contribution of this professional lies in the prevention of injuries related to a poor ergonomic-design of a workstation or task. These types of injuries, commonly known as repetitive strain injuries, are developing slowly and gradually – sometimes after years or decades – and often leave the injured worker with a long-term, severely limiting, long-term disability.

By studying how forces act on the human body during an operation, an ergonomist is ideal for designing large complex operations such as assembly lines, packaging stations, material handling jobs or shipping and receiving operations that typically require significant manual labor. Their studies also identify existing tasks that may require equipment, tooling or work aids that assist the worker in completing that task safer and faster.

For example, specifying appropriate hand tools that will prevent injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome is invaluable. Carpal tunnel syndrome is a progressively painful hand and arm condition caused by a pinched nerve in the wrist. A number of factors contribute to this condition, including the anatomy of your wrist, certain underlying health problems and possibly patterns of hand use in performing the task. This repetitive strain injury that produces pain and numbness which, if left untreated, can eventually lead to hand weakness.

Fortunately, this condition is highly treatable. But even so, treatment of carpel tunnel syndrome often requires costly surgery and a lengthy recovery time in which the injured employee is likely to qualify for workers’ compensation benefits.

Another costly injury that is commonly caused by poor ergonomic design involves back injuries. Back injuries constitute a significant portion of long-term medical injuries; the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that one of every five workplace injuries are back injuries and 80 percent of these are caused by poor ergonomic design or practice. What’s more, back injuries tend to stubbornly re-occur, especially in those workplaces that have not addressed the ergonomic problems.

The duties of the ergonomist can vary substantially, but in general they always center on ensuring that the interaction between worker and workspace is safe. These duties may include:

  • Determining the physical capabilities and limits required of a given job
  • Analyzing the forces that act on the body as people use equipment and machinery
  • Workplace risk assessments and Job Safety Analysis
  • Researching and producing user manuals
  • Specifying the physical qualifications required for a job
  • Delivering job safety training
  • Lead continue improvement events

Does your plant really need an ergonomist? At an average wage ranging from $55,000 to $110,000, employing a fulltime staff ergonomist may not necessarily be a fiscally responsible move. On the other hand, one single ergonomic injury can cost more than the entire annual salary for an ergonomist.

Ergonomic solutions need not involve expensive machinery or costly shop floor renovations. In fact, the best ergonomists recommend low-cost interventions, such as training the workers on how their posture can affect their fatigue level, pain, and other indicators of stress on the body. Ergonomic expertise in workstation layout design can profoundly reduce the stress on a worker’s body by making small and simple adjustments that tweak the arrangement and load-unloading of parts, tools and other materials.

When deciding whether or not to hire an ergonomist, employers should consider:

Risk. Are you, by the inherent nature of your industry or process, at significant risk of injury? If you have many jobs that require lifting, bending, or repetitive high-production rate manual tasks, you should consider hiring an ergonomist.

Degree of Standard Work. Are you a job shop where processes vary by project? Do your processes frequently change? In cases where your process is fairly fluid you may wish to consider hiring an ergonomic specialist.

History. Does your industry have a history of costly ergonomic injuries? If so, you should seriously consider adding an ergonomist.

Do you manufacture automated equipment or furniture? The ergonomist’s skill in analyzing the forces that act on people make them ideally suited to participate in the development of user manuals, training, and the design of equipment.

Increasingly lean plants may find it difficult to justify the cost of a full-time ergonomist and instead decide to use the ergonomic function in multiple roles. The skills and education of an ergonomist nicely complement those of a safety generalist, an operations manager, a maintenance supervisor, or even a manufacturing engineer. Combining these positions creates a more flexible and well-rounded approach to safety – and a more efficient, profitable process.

As more organizations understand the operational value of sound human factors analysis on design, ergonomics has become a fast-growing field. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects the number of ergonomists to grow faster than the average for all occupations. Much of this job growth is attributed to the increase in the technical advances in discipline itself. Manufacturers who previously could not afford a dedicated ergonomic professional are now finding that the position essentially pays for itself.

Phil La Duke

Phil La Duke is a partner in the Performance Assurance Practice at ERM: Environmental Resources Management, 3352 128th Avenue, Holland, MI 49424, 313-244-2525, www.erm.com. You can also follow Phil and reach him on his blogs at www.philladuke.wordpress.com.

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