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Solution Strategies for Improving Ergonomics
By: Josh Egbert, CPE

November 2004

While ergonomic improvement processes come in many forms, the three-phase approach involving recognition, evaluation, and control is typically one of the basic underlying themes. Over the years, scientific research and industry innovation have contributed to the development of many tools that help companies recognize and evaluate ergonomic risk factors. However, companies may still find themselves unable to develop effective solutions to ergonomic issues, even after a formal ergonomic evaluation has been completed. Lack of a formalized strategy for solution development is a recipe for failure. A company may become overly reliant on lower impact solutions such as changes in work practices or administrative controls, and workers and managers alike can become increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress and results. Below are five strategies for identifying effective ergonomic solutions that will help you get the results you expect from your ergonomics program.

1. Ask Why Five Times
Solution development begins with a clear problem statement. Use the “five whys” to determine root causes for ergonomic hazard exposures such as awkward postures, forceful exertions, and repetitive motion.

  • Why is the operator reaching across the conveyor? To reach the parts bin.
  • Why is the parts bin located across the conveyor? Because there is no room for it in front of the conveyor.
  • Why is there no room for the parts bin? Because that area is used to store the tools.
  • Why are the tools stored there? Because this station does not have a tool balancer to hang them from overhead.

In this case, four whys are sufficient for identifying the root cause that leads to a simple solution.

2. Posture, Force, and Frequency

Ergonomic issues in the workplace such as awkward postures, excessive forces, and extreme frequencies of movement are the primary risk factors for work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs). Like the fire triangle, in which three components—fuel, source of ignition, and oxygen—create fire, postures, forces, and frequencies can work together to turn small ergonomic issues into big problems.

Posture- Awkward postures (non-neutral joint positions)

Force- Excessive force (pressure, weight, or grip)

Frequency- Extreme frequency and/or duration of movement

The same risk factors that contribute to WMSDs are also barriers to industrial performance. Repeatability of manufacturing operations is compromised when extreme postures are required, and recovery times from high force applications increase the non-value-added content of job tasks. At a microelement level, the same motions that contribute to ergonomic risk are the motions that rob operations of efficiency.

Use posture, force, and frequency to form useful leading questions that can help you generate simple solutions:

  • What can be done to eliminate awkward postures?
  • To reduce exertion forces?
  • To minimize frequency of movement?

br> Poor postures are often the easiest to address through simple workstation component rearrangements, and eliminating posture problems can make forceful or repetitive movements tolerable.

3. Comfort Zone

The Comfort Zone is similar to the strike zone in baseball—it’s the area in front of us where we are strongest, have the best dexterity and visual acuity, and can work in neutral postures. Working inside the Comfort Zone may also reduce the time required to perform a work activity because unnecessary movements are reduced or eliminated. Challenging jobs are often performed outside the comfort zone for a variety of reasons, some of which are easy to reverse. Ask yourself what needs to be done to get the work into the Comfort Zone.

4. Tool/Target

Ergonomic issues are the result of a mismatch between the workstation and the employee and/or the tool used in the work activity. Changing either the tool that is used or the target location can improve all ergonomic issues; when an employee does not use a specific tool, the tool is the employee’s hand. This solution strategy is nothing more than asking yourself "Is it easier to change the tool handle orientation or to modify the target?" With pistol grip, in-line, and right angle tools available, matching the correct tool handle orientation to the task can solve many tool-related ergonomic challenges. On the other hand, many parts can be fixtured in such a way that reorientation is simple and the existing hand tool will work fine.

Change the Tool

Tools are designed for specific applications in a specified direction. If an employee uses the wrong tool to complete a task, he or she may resort to non-neutral postures such as wrist deviations and shoulder raising, which increase the chance of injury. It is important to select and use a tool that is appropriate for the specific work activity to promote more neutral body postures. Here are general guidelines for tool selection and design:

  • Use pistol grip tools when applying force horizontally, on a vertical surface
  • Use in-line tools when applying force vertically, on a horizontal surface
  • Lengthen or shorten handles and tool bits to bring the reach to the tool into the operator’s Comfort Zone
  • Provide a secondary tool handle for better control and improved postures
  • Balance tools and orient them in the direction of use

Change the Target

If the proper tool cannot be used, change the target orientation to fit with the tool and promote neutral body postures. Ways to modify the target include:

  • Provide a jig or fixture to orient the part for easy access
  • Provide adjustable height tables
  • Establish a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) to ensure that people use the equipment the way it was designed to be used

5. Ask the Operator

The simplest solution strategy may also be the most effective—ask the person who does the job if he or she can think of a better way of doing it. Operators know the ins and outs of their job tasks better than any of us, and they often bring a great deal of clarity to the search for solutions. Engaging operators in conversation about ergonomic issues is vital to uncovering the root cause of the issue and identifying practical solutions. The real expert in any operation is the person who does it every day. Ask the operator to identify ergonomic problems that you might otherwise miss. In addition, consider asking operators the following questions to gain greater insight into the operation:

  • What is the least desirable or most difficult part of this operation?
  • While performing this operation, do you experience any pain or discomfort?
  • Have there been any ergonomic injuries associated with this operation?
  • What suggestions do you have for improving this work area?
  • Are there any quality or production issues associated with this operation?

These solution strategies are just a starting point, a way to generate potential improvements. Regardless of the strategy that your company uses, there are a few general rules to follow:

  • You do not have to eliminate all risk factors to make an impact. Projects that focus on the "home run" solution, one that would reduce or eliminate the majority of the risk factors, can be risky because of the associated high cost and long time required to implement these solutions. Ergonomics, like other improvement initiatives, is about making small continuous improvements or "base hits."
  • A good implementation plan will include a range of short- and long-term solutions. Short-term solutions can be implemented immediately but may not reduce the risk factors to an acceptable level. Long-term solutions may reduce the risk to an acceptable level, however they require more time to implement, which lengthens the exposure to the current level of risk. Ask yourself "What can I do today, tomorrow, next week, next month, and next year to improve this operation?" For example, suppose a work task requires the operator to retrieve parts from a pallet positioned on the floor, causing back flexion. The long-term solution may be to provide a lift table, but by stacking several empty pallets under the full pallet, you can make an immediate improvement.
  • Don't try and solve problems by yourself. Utilize the concept of the "group brain" to help generate out-of-the-box thinking and breakthrough improvements. Members of the "group brain" may include operators, supervisors, safety personnel, engineers, equipment vendors, other facilities, or even consultants. The more eyes looking at a problem, the more ideas you are likely to generate.
  • Don’t forget to check for success—go back to your problem statement and verify that the proposed solution will actually address the problem. Once improvements are in place, confirm that the ergonomic challenge has been resolved and no new challenges have been created as a result. Then you know you have a success on your hands.

Without a clear strategy for solution development, a company may struggle to meet the goals it has set for its ergonomics program. And while recognition and evaluation tools help to provide companies with a plan and a priority for addressing ergonomic risk factors, a solution development strategy allows the company to take action to correct the identified risks. Incorporating some the strategies mentioned above into your ergonomics program will help to ensure that you are getting the most out of your ergonomics initiative.