Understanding Ergonomics

Understanding Ergonomics and its effects
Ask any engineer, productivity manager or indeed even the CEO of companies if they will allow their machinery to work beyond the manufactures specifications, especially if their profit is directly linked to that machinery functioning optimally. The answer is linked to the understanding of ergonomics. Any responsible professional will answer that they spend considerable cost of hiring appropriately trained professionals to service or maintain the machinery to ensure that it is operated in full accordance with the manufacturers design specifications, in terms of service rates, operating temperatures, pressures, amongst others. To do otherwise would ensure premature failure, costly downtime, high maintenance, and lost productivity/capacity. These costs are more than often directly measurable in lost production time. The costs involved for failure are unacceptable. The key to understanding the application of Ergonomics is that we (Humans) were not given a set of design specifications in terms of running temperatures and limits to performance. We have had to, in most cases, reactively measure these factors and make educated guesses as to what humans can and cannot accomplish. Also we are biological machines, and from an ergonomics perspective this means that we can adapt and improve on our “base model” with not too much cost. We don’t have to wait to be upgraded nor have additional functional components installed. It is this understanding that we make the erroneous assumptions that we can design environments or set work limits based on aesthetics or productivity demands and the human component will adapt. If they don’t adapt then the cost of failure is not critical in terms of lost production. This is especially the case when labour pool is deep and cheap. A critical piece of research that companies should become aware of is “Economic Burden of Occupational Injury and Illness in the United States” J. Paul Leigh, Published in the Milbank Quarterly, Vol 89, No.4, 2011 (pp.728-772). This study revealed the startling information regarding the cost of occupational injury and illness. The study estimates the following: 8,564,600 fatal and non-fatal work-related injuries, which cost $192 billion. 516,100 fatal and non-fatal work-related illnesses, which cost $58 billion. 59,102 combined deaths from occupational injuries and diseases, which was higher than all deaths from motor vehicle crashes (43,945), breast cancer (40,970) or prostate cancer (29,093) in the same year. Another concerning set of statistics is the data collected by the Bureau of labor (sic) statistics which records occupational injuries and illnesses. The interesting figure below clearly shows an increasing cost (in terms of days away from work) of repetitive type injuries and tendonitis (which is often attributed to repetitive work, probably more likely to be tendinousis)
Graph showing the days spent away from work due to physiological issues created in a non-ergonomic environment
Graph showing the days spent away from work due to physiological issues created in a non-ergonomic environment
Sourced from: http://www.bls.gov/ Figure 1: Average days away from work due to nature of injury. What is clear is that people are working beyond their capacity, and that this is an expensive situation for companies, probably a lot more expensive than budgeted for! As logic would dictate it would appear to make economic sense to follow ergonomics research principles and implement a “design specifications for human performance” when designing work environments or setting production demands. Yet, ironically, our “most valuable assets” are being asked to operate outside their design specifications every day to support our continuous production requirements. The net result is clearly evident in the above research and figures. The outcome then is premature failure (in terms of sickness and injury), which leads to costly downtime (in terms of absenteeism and presenteeism), as well as high maintenance (in terms of health and wellness and training costs). What companies have to ask is, what is this costing in terms of lost productivity and how are these factors undermining their profitability. Continuing to neglect our most important assets will perpetuate this cycle of high costs and unnecessary risks. It is time to understand that these costs, risks and liabilities no longer have to be accepted and financed as part of doing business. This is especially true for the South African developing market, where our, predominantly manual, labour force is often pushed to meet the demands in order to compete with those of developed countries output.

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