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A managing consultant and ergonomics engineer for Humantech observes a worker during one of the ergonomics consulting firm’s on-site visits. (Photo courtesy of Humantech)

Josh Kerst

An Eye on Ergonomics

Comfortable workers can be happier workers. And happier workers can contribute to better-quality production.

When you step inside Humantech’s (humantech.com) office in Ann Arbor, Michigan, it looks like any office on any typical work day. You’ll see cubicles, coffee cups, computers, and a handful of employees standing. But they’re not just standing around. They’re standing at their desks. No, there isn’t a chair shortage at the company. And these desks aren’t your run-of-the-OfficeMax catalog models: they are specialized models with features that elevate and retract so the user can work at her computer at a comfortable standing height to promote a sit-to-stand work cycle: two hours of standing during an eighthour
day. This is because data show standing promotes cardiovascular and spinal health. 

And that’s important at Humantech, as it is a consulting firm that specializes in workplace ergonomics—the science of fitting a job to a person. In other words, this company practices what it preaches. 

Ask ergonomics engineer and the company’s vp Josh Kerst what ergonomics is, and his answer might surprise you. Kerst, who has been with the company for nearly 25 years (it was founded in 1979), will tell you that ergonomics is an engineering issue, not a health and safety issue (it only becomes a health and safety concern once there’s an injury). And although there is seemingly a lot of attention to the office environment, he points out, “Ninety-five percent of what ergonomics is today is focused on the manufacturing environment.” 

So what do companies need to know about ergonomics? Here are some key things that Kerst says are important:

* The root cause of most workplace problems is the mismatch between what people can do and what employers ask them to do. This could result in workplace injuries and lower-quality products.

* If a process is unsafe or its performance is punishing for a worker, it might not be done properly. For example, at minute 419 of a 420-minute shift, a worker may not use the same force to make sure a screw is properly torqued if they aren’t comfortable on the job. This could result in quality and safety problems, and unsatisfied clients.

* Get rid of the non-value added activities that often go hand-in-hand with ergonomics risk factors. An employee having to bend to ankle level to pick up a part before bringing it to waist level to perform assembly is performing an unnecessary step. Work should always be at “handshake height.” If an employee approaches his or her work and they can’t shake hands with it, it’s unfriendly and could potentially result in injury.

* Learn to see a work environment with “ergo eyes.” This will give you the ability to spot an issue before it becomes a problem. (However, Kerst does warn that this could affect your personal life. If you start noticing ergonomics issues at a sandwich shop, you might want to think about becoming a full-time ergonomist.)

* Design products for maintainability and disassembly, and make sure you’re thinking about and putting an emphasis on the people who are putting your product together, those who are using your product, and the people who are going to service it. 

* Get process engineers to actually do the jobs that they’ve designed, with the work instructions they’ve created. This will provide firsthand knowledge of whether what they’ve developed actually works as effectively and efficiently as they think. 

* Pay attention to an aging workforce. Design processes and facilities to accommodate older workers.

* Ask employees how they’d change their work environment.

 While speaking with Kerst it’s easy to pick up on what he thinks really is the driving factor in workplace ergonomics—the people (“human” is a part of the company’s name for a reason). You probably don’t need an expert to tell you that comfortable workers are happier workers, but we’ll have him stress it just in case you need a friendly reminder: “At the end of the day it’s pretty simple: healthy people perform better.”

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The Find It-Fix-It Challenge

Humantech’s fifth-annual Find It-Fix It Challenge had more than 200 entries from 17 companies around the world. The competition’s goal is to recognize simple and effective workplace solutions that result in increased productivity, improved worker morale, and fewer workplace injuries and illnesses.

An idea that improved the deburring process of a planetary gear made at a Timken (timken.com) plant in Connecticut walked away with top honors. Originally, an operator had to bend over to grind the edges off the 400-lb. gear’s teeth. Because the gear was in a horizontal position, it had to be moved multiple times throughout the process. Now the fixture is mounted on an adjustable table with a roller system that holds the gear vertically for a more comfortable deburring position. It should be noted that ergonomic changes can be economical. Says Humantech vp and ergonomics engineer Josh Kerst, “Most of the Find It-Fix It entries were done for less than $1,000, and almost all of the finalists made quality improvements which led to better delivery and better cost.”