Putting worker safety first: why ergonomics matters

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Manufacturers’ Monthly spoke with Ted Dohrmann, managing director at Dohrmann Consulting based in Melbourne, about the importance of ergonomics in a potentially hazardous workplace in an industrial setting.

Ergonomics is the science of fitting work to people. Humanising the design of each industrial process wherever humans interact with it needs to be a critical part of every organisation’s safety system.

It can, and does, make a huge difference to bottom-line productivity.

Crossing from one industry to another, a company’s ergonomics needs may differ from its competitors’, depending on their system and workforce. The goals, however, are always the same: to prevent injury in the workplace, to enhance comfort and to increase productivity.

Simply put, ergonomics means tweaking the current operation to get the best out of its operators and staff – using their physical and mental capabilities, and avoiding natural human limitations.

For example, humans are very good at picking patterns, but less so at repeated, forceful effort.  The job design should reflect this.

The Australian Work Health and Safety Strategy 2012–2022 has stated that it plans to reduce the percentage of serious injuries by 30 per cent and fatalities by 20 per cent by the year 2022.

According to the paper, it is estimated that more 2,000 workers die from a work-related illness each year.

It explains that all workers, regardless of their occupation or how they are engaged, have the right to a healthy and safe working environment.

In 2009–10, 640,000 workers reported experiencing a work-related injury or illness while, in the same year, 303,000 workers were compensated for an injury or illness – prompting change.

Dohrmann Consulting – working out of its offices in Flemington, Victoria since 1977 – is an expert in this field.   They help businesses prevent injury, by designing more productive, user friendly systems.

Their experience lends specifically to workplace safety – for example, by  injecting complying design into office spaces – and also with legal obligations.

While they work across most sectors, they work most closely with companies in retail, transport, health care and manufacturing.

Ted Dohrmann is the company’s managing director. A professional mechanical engineer, he owns additional graduate qualifications in ergonomics.  He consults widely to industry, and is also an experienced expert witness, experience which he and his professional team apply to the firm’s industrial safety improvement projects.

Speaking with Manufacturers’ Monthly, he discussed the challenges businesses face in this area and the relationship workplace safety shares with ergonomics, from workforce training to risk management.

“As humans shift into more overseeing and control roles, ergonomics will continue to play a big role itself,” Dohrmann said. “For example, we have been often involved with the design of large and small control rooms and consoles for many years, and we expect this to increase.

“Likewise, designing displays, information systems and software to be error-free and productive takes ergonomic finesse. Designing for the user minimises error, and also keeps the operator safe and productive.  Humanising a task, product or process really is a no-brainer.

“Firstly, the scope of the human engagement in each step of the process needs to be identified. Wherever your people are required to do something physical, or make a decision, skilled ergonomics design will optimise the job.   The information flow, control methods and physical aspects must all be considered.

“If the process demands too much – whether mentally or physically – then we look to adjust the process so that it can be done safely, comfortably and more productively.”

Consider a packer standing at the end of a production line, lifting boxes of product from the end of a roller conveyor onto a nearby pallet, for a full shift at a time.

ted-dohrmann1-copyAn ergonomics evaluation will focus on weights, postures,  the repetition rate and duration times involved.  Skilled analysis (often software assisted) may find a risk of back and shoulder injury, or unnecessary fatigue.

Practical options to reduce this risk may include shrinking the product weight, if possible, providing an adjustable height pallet turntable, or implementing a task rotation plan that provides adequate respite.

By automating that part of the packing process, one should also ensure staff are trained in safe work procedures.

In summary, an effective ergonomics programme will both find and fix safety problems.

Whether a company is looking for a complete analysis of their workplace, or if they only need attention in a specific area, Dohrmann’s expert ergonomists and engineers want to help.  They study lighting, air movement, thermal factors, trips slips and fall risks, guarding, postures, traffic, warehousing and more.

“Ergonomics is a multi-faceted discipline that addresses work from floor to ceiling,” Dohrmann said. “Our consultants are highly experienced and work with the people who actually do the work (and manage it) to understand and implement the highest safety standards throughout the workplace.”

Ergonomics had its beginnings in the early 1900s in the industrial sector.

The first ergonomists became interested in how long workers took to complete individual tasks, with a view to standardising those tasks, and gaining efficiencies.

These “time and motion” studies became popular, Dohrmann explained, and led to the role of humans in industrial systems becoming better understood.

“It became apparent that improvements in workplace design could be made by understanding humans better” he said. “The design of work, generally, brought both productivity and safety benefits. This core understanding of the benefits of user-centred design remains the focus for ergonomists today.

“As ergonomics consultants, we examine process details end to end, and ensure that at every human contact point the task lies inside their true capabilities and limitations.

“The user-friendly systems and processes that result will lift safety, improve comfort and drive productivity.”

Applying proven ergonomics methodologies to the design and assessment of your workplace – from the front office to the factory floor – invariably results in improved safety across the board.

The reason is that it fundamentally involves a focus on the human in the system – from the receptionist working at a screen, keyboard and phone to a maintenance technician overhauling a complex machine in an awkward position – and considers how the whole person can best do their work safely.

One obvious area where ergonomics can reduce the risk of serious injuries is in strain injury reduction.

Strain injury has many causes.  Ergonomists can help businesses identify and understand those risk factors, and devise suitable strategies to control them.

“We work for clients Australia-wide out of our Melbourne office, deploying members of our full-time professional team or from our wide network of associates across the capital cities,” Dohrmann added. “Our work has taken as across Asia and we’re currently working across the Tasman to New Zealand.”

Dohrmann provides various services to industrial clients. They include:

  • Workplace Ergonomics Assessments.
  • Hazardous Manual Task Risk Management.
  • Hazardous Manual Task Risk Management Training.
  • Product Design and Assessment – applying the latest ergonomics data to design processes.
  • Workplace design – ensuring work processes and layout are fully compliant with  laws, codes and Worksafe guidelines.
  • Training – from basic ergonomics to advanced topics, Dohrmanns trains, develops and supports your people as they help your business improve.
  • Specialised services – control room design, Green Star ergonomics credit, National Construction Code Alternative Solutions – their expert ergonomists and engineers have you covered.

“A substantial part of our work involves investigating incidents and injuries which have occurred in factories and other industrial places, and providing expert opinion in court on liability,” Dohrmann said.

“We use this special knowledge to assist with advice we give clients on compliance, task design, process adjustments, environmental audits, product design, equipment selection and layout, and training.

“Whether you’re a large operation with multiple sites or a small business with just a couple of staff, it can be complex, confusing and time consuming to ensure compliance with workplace safety laws, standards and regulations.

“Through our unique exposure to this work, we have developed a keen sense of what is ‘reasonably practicable’, and we bring this knowledge to any project we undertake with a client.

“As a starting point, the advice we give is always framed to protect the employer from legal problems, as well as protecting staff from injury.”