Ergonomics and sustainability may seem like two distinct concepts at first glance. Nonetheless, as the world shifts its focus towards environmental consciousness and sustainable practices, the bond between these two fields becomes increasingly evident. Let’s explore the pivotal role of ergonomics in championing sustainable practices.
A Journey Through Time: Understanding Sustainability
The concept of sustainability has evolved over the years. Originally synonymous with reducing consumption, the term has broadened its meaning to encompass environmental concerns, among others. According to Roger Haslam & Patrick Waterson (2013), sustainability today is deeply tied to wide-ranging international actions aiming to:
Reduce consumption and production
Improve built environments and resource utilization
Advocate sustainable land use and agriculture
Enhance transportation, energy generation, and supply systems
Promote waste management and recycling
This evolution isn’t isolated from human behavior. In fact, there’s a tangible synergy between ergonomics and these sustainability goals. Such an alliance ensures not just environmental sustainability, but also the sustainability of products, human resources, and business ethics. Successful businesses of today have realized that adopting sustainable practices isn’t just ethically right but also economically beneficial in the long run.
Designing for Tomorrow: The Daciano Perspective
Moreira Da Silva’s study in 2015 introduced us to Daciano, a celebrated Portuguese designer who firmly believed in shared responsibility toward achieving sustainable products. His designs were a testament to:
A balance between social, environmental, and economic facets
Emphasis on durable materials and local technologies
Harmonizing the designer’s vision with the needs of the producer, workers, and local resources
Daciano’s office furniture system exemplifies this approach (Moreira Da Silva., 2015). By incorporating long-lasting materials and reusing industrial production techniques, he paved the way for more sustainable designs that resonate with both cultural and economic contexts.
Building a Sustainable Future: Ergonomics Throughout a Building’s Life Cycle
A building, whether commercial or residential, has a significant environmental footprint. However, integrating ergonomics can redefine this impact as highlighted in “The Importance of ergonomics to sustainability throughout a building’s life cycle” by Linda Miller, Julie Dorsey, and Karen Jacobs (2012). It ensures that the building not only meets the environmental, social, and economic demands of today but is also prepared for the needs of future generations.
Sustainable design has gained traction due to its evident returns on investment, increased occupant satisfaction, and rising public interest in environmental protection (Miller, Dorsey, and Jacobs., 2012). By considering human factors throughout a building’s lifecycle, from design and construction to operation and decommissioning, ergonomics promotes both individual well-being and system-wide sustainability. Through integrating ergonomics in the design process, practitioners have a platform to advocate for workplace safety, proactively, thus integrating ergonomic principles into the design process. This saves the future worker from workplace hazards as they were designed out before the building was opened for use.
For a holistic approach to sustainable design, Miller and colleagues (2012), noted that it’s paramount to factor in the human element throughout every phase, from design and construction to operation and eventual decommissioning of a building. Integrating ergonomic principles not only enhances human performance, productivity, and well-being but also catalyzes sustainability at both individual and systemic levels.
Ergonomists have several roles in this setting:
Optimized Spaces for Health and Performance: Ergonomists can ensure that workspaces are tailored to foster health, wellness, and optimal performance. Such an approach minimizes resource wastage, aligning with sustainability principles.
Behavioral Change Advocacy: Ergonomists’ insights can drive designs that naturally encourage sustainable practices among occupants.
Leadership in Sustainable Certification: It’s essential for ergonomists to familiarize themselves with certifications like the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification. By understanding and advocating for such certifications, ergonomists can drive sustainable building practices.
Promoting Sustainable Designs: The Ergonomist’s Role Today
Sustainable design begins at the manufacturing of the product, as depicted in Daciano’s office furniture system (Moreira Da Silva., 2015), and extends into the creation of new structures (Miller, Dorsey, and Jacobs., 2012), but it does not stop there. As ergonomists, providing lasting products to end users contributes to the sustainability initiative. This entails doing our due diligence in recommending products that can withstand the application while providing lasting ergonomic benefits. Not only does this practice reduce consumption but entails a stronger return on investments as repurchasing is not an elevated concern. This is advantageous to ergonomists as lasting products will provide assurance that risk is averted for an extended period. Coupled with manufacturers’ commitment to making high-quality, durable, and lasting products, this will greatly benefit sustainability initiatives.
Ergonomics as a Sustainable Champion
To truly harness the potential of ergonomics in sustainability, it’s crucial for ergonomists to comprehend certifications like the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) and incorporate them into their practices. By championing a proactive, sustainable approach, ergonomists can lead the way in reducing overconsumption and promoting waste reduction.
In this journey towards a sustainable future, ergonomics and sustainability aren’t just allies; they are two sides of the same coin. Together, they hold the promise of a world where environmental well-being harmonizes with human prosperity.
You Don’t Have to Reinvent the Wheel, But You Do Need the Right Caster for the Job!
When it comes to ergonomics, we often only hear discussions about the value of injury avoidance and prevention. At Darcor, we talk extensively about the importance of ergonomics in the workplace, but we aren’t just talking about injury avoidance… we believe in taking a more proactive approach!
In terms of transporting heavy loads with manual material handling carts, having the right cart design and caster selection for the specific application doesn’t just reduce the rate of injury. The right cart design can also create a ripple effect that offers benefits for the business in every aspect of operational efficiency and productivity.
It’s Not Just About Injury Avoidance
Overexertion injuries, such as those that involve pushing and pulling, are the costliest for employers. According to the 2023 Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index (WSI), overexertion costs businesses $12.84 billion in direct costs! That does not include indirect costs that can be anywhere from 4-10x more. We know that workplace injuries can be costly for any business, but a cart that prioritizes ergonomics and ease of use goes beyond injury avoidance.
A well-designed cart with quality casters makes it easier for the worker to do their job. In fact, a 2019 study of ten workers conducted by Darcor found that doing a repeated task with a well-designed cart was so much easier and more efficient than without, that over time it was like adding an 11th person to the production line.
A well-designed cart doesn’t just save you the unpredictable and costly consequences of a workplace injury, it can also increase efficiency and productivity, improving the bottom line for your business.
The Caster’s Hidden Value
While it may be difficult for a company to justify spending more on their cart program, something as small and simple as casters can make a big difference in productivity. Just like the tires on your car, casters are the only point of contact with the surface you’re on. They impact the ease of movement the cart operator has, how quickly they can stop, and how easily they’re able to turn. Carts that are hard to maneuver can slow down productivity and increase the risk of injury to the worker.
Type of floor and cart load weight are just two of the key factors that affect caster selection. Simply choosing the right casters can increase operational efficiency by improving operator mobility and decrease production downtime due to less mechanical breakdown resulting from low quality cart components.
Avoid Breakdowns by Finding the Right Caster
There are several ways that casters can break down, such as exceeding load capacity; environmental conditions, like high workplace temperature or presence of floor debris; and impact loading, which occurs when a caster hits an obstacle. But the most common cause of caster malfunction is that the wrong caster was used in the first place. The reason for caster misuse, most often comes down to price.
One Darcor client that relies exclusively on cart usage was able to justify purchasing high-quality casters for their carts by looking at the avoided maintenance costs and the resulting operational slowdowns for replacement and fixes. Even one broken cart can have a profound impact on the business by slowing down delivery and putting customer service at risk to the point of losing customers to a competitor.
Making the Investment
Choosing the most inexpensive caster may seem like a good way to reduce costs, but it can end up affecting the company’s bottom line when equipment goes down and productivity comes to a halt. Cheap casters can negatively impact your business and competitiveness. It is much more cost-effective to take the long-term view and make a better investment up front. You don’t have to “reinvent the wheel,” but you do need the right caster for the job.
A serious, and often subtle, workplace safety hazard is lurking in many fabricating operations. It starts with employees hauling equipment, workpieces, and products around the shop, even when they’re already taking precautions and following OSHA’s lifting guidelines.
What might start out as a minor strain from pushing around the same cart or picking up the same material every day can develop into a debilitating condition, such as carpal tunnel or chronic back pain, resulting in a domino effect of physical suffering, financial liabilities, and work stoppage. Moderate physical exertion is so routine for employees in the fabrication industry that they sometimes fail to grasp the severity of their musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) risk.
To make matters worse, in high-product-mix, low-volume sheet metal fabrication environments, the most common material handling vehicle—the forklift—is often inadequate and unsafe to use. That doesn’t mean it’s time to throw in the towel and hope for the best. With a little homework and some expert input, fabricators can make workplace MSDs a thing of the past.
MSDs are a class of injuries caused by overexertion from lifting, pulling, or pushing a load, resulting in damage to muscles and tendons. MSDs can range in severity from minor sprains and strains to career-ending herniated disks. In manufacturing environments, MSDs of the wrist, elbows, knees, and back are typical.
In terms of understanding how MSDs impact the fabrication industry, most of the research has already been done. The Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety found that MSDs most commonly result from trauma accumulated over time during repeated tasks that require a low level of exertion. This is what makes MSD risks so difficult to detect. Workers may not realize that a load is too heavy to move safely on a regular basis until it’s too late, which also limits management’s ability to act preemptively.
Outside the purely moral argument—that is, companies should never put employees in a hazardous situation—poor ergonomics has both direct and indirect costs. Direct costs include workers’ compensation costs, time lost due to injuries, and subpar productivity. Indirect costs include low morale, which can lead to late deliveries, poor quality, and high employee turnover.
Poor ergonomics is a very real, though often hidden, safety hazard, and it can cost fabricators dearly every day. And like any other major cost, it should be analyzed, accounted for, minimized—and never ignored.
Precarious Pipes on the Move
Consider a large fabricator that had to move 20- to 40-foot-long pipes from the yard to inside the plant. In this situation, the pipes needed to move up a 5-degree incline into the plant through a corridor too narrow for a typical forklift. During the walk-through of the overall manufacturing operation, engineers also found that employees could not adequately gauge the weight of the materials they were moving, increasing the potential for injury.
In this case, the fabricator invested in a custom motorized transfer cart with a wireless control, so the operator could maintain a safe distance from the cart during the transfer. It also had an onboard payload scale to prevent overloading. This allowed the fabricator to move materials from outside to anywhere inside the plant, which in this situation was a better, safer solution.
The Big Picture
Ergonomics is about looking at the whole picture, not just a certain lifting load at one machine or workstation. Consider a press brake operator who forms parts and places them on a custom-fabricated mobile scissor-lift cart. The table’s large enough to accommodate large panels along with several smaller components and can be adjusted depending on who’s operating the brake that day.
Then the material handler pushes that scissor-lift cart to the powder coating department. There, a short employee needs to extend her reach to grasp a medium-sized part in the center of the large cart. She does that again. And again. And by the end of her shift, her back is aching. In this case, would two carts—large parts in one, smaller parts in another—have been a better solution? It could well have been, but not without extensive observation and analysis.
Because everyone’s physiology is different, what’s safe for one employee may not be safe for another. People’s height and weight have an effect, as do their reach and the frequency of particular movements. For instance, if a person (like the operator in the powder coat department) needs to extend his or her arms laterally beyond a comfortable distance when grasping an object, the employee might feel a brief ping in the back.
They do this repeatedly, and they’ll probably feel the pain and remember it. But people might not feel the pain all the time. Say someone needs to perform an awkward, “long reach” lift maybe once or twice a shift. She might feel a ping in her back, but it goes away, so she doesn’t complain. Still, over time it gets worse. And worse. Eventually she’s receiving physical therapy.
Because everyone’s body is different, we have to make some general assumptions when combatting MSDs. The same group of researchers at Liberty Mutual also discovered that when workplaces accommodate the physical ability of 75 percent of the female population, two-thirds of all back-pain claims can be avoided regardless of the gender makeup of a given workplace. Using this benchmark, they created tables for push, pull, and lifting limits that any industry can use. When first assessing MSD risk at any facility, engineers and ergonomics experts often start by referencing the Liberty Mutual tables.
When an operation chooses to begin addressing workplace MSDs, facing the music is nowhere near as time- and resource-consuming as ignoring the problem altogether. When accounting for medical care, employee turnover, work stoppage, increased insurance premiums, and regulatory fines, the consequences of overlooked MSD risks are steep. According to OSHA’s report on the financial impact of MSDs, a musculoskeletal injury can cost an employer anywhere from $48,000 to $67,000 per incident in both direct and indirect costs.
What Makes a Cart Safe?
After a company’s safety team identifies a workplace safety vulnerability, many well-intended fabricators will turn to material handling equipment to alleviate the overexertion their employees experience. Usually the equipment of choice will be a heavy-duty flatbed cart robust enough to carry a range of materials in high-product-mix environments. Unfortunately, some of these carts still will leave employees vulnerable to injury, particularly when they’re not adequately motorized. Especially creative fabricators might also put their welding skills to use and construct their own equipment to aid in the pushing, pulling, and lifting of essential materials, such as sheet metal, piping, and steel support beams.
Some mistakes fabricators make include using wheel casters that are too small for the load, piling too much material onto a single cart, and not realizing when it’s time to motorize a manual cart.
How do you identify these problems? Again, it starts with the plant walk-through. Are operators needing to lean and push excessively to give a cart momentum? That might mean the load is too heavy or the casters are too small, a particular problem for an uneven floor. Rolling those small casters over a crack in the floor creates a violent jostle, which in turn can throw a load off balance—not the safest of situations.
Put the right caster on these carts, and the situation might improve. Larger-diameter caster wheels make carts easier to push. The swivel action makes a difference too. A well-made caster, with precision-ground and sealed raceways, will add stability to turns. So too will the swivel lead, or the distance between the center of the wheel and the center of the swivel action. A long swivel lead increases the rotation distance and creates a mechanical advantage, making turns easier.
Determining the wheel size is just the beginning. Another factor is the center of gravity. A cart must be wide enough to be stable while carrying a variety of loads, but not too wide or it will be difficult to maneuver in tight spaces, whether or not it’s motorized.
There’s a reason that developing an adequate material handling solution is so difficult. Even following OSHA’s published lifting limit of 50 pounds doesn’t fully protect employees. This is because material weight alone is not the only factor that contributes to MSD risk, especially during physically awkward or fast-paced tasks.
Though many loads weighing less than 40 lbs. are safe to move manually, one OSHA study specifically analyzing the MSD risk of lifting tasks discovered that injury is still possible when transporting materials as light as 35 lbs. With such conflicting information, the confusion fabricators experience when trying to protect their employees is completely understandable.
Coming up with the right ergonomic motorized equipment for a specific application is a complicated process. In addition to load size and weight, engineers have to account for any inclines, rough surfaces, or outdoor conditions that could inhibit the proposed equipment’s ability to operate safely. Entire workplace processes and systems must also be looked at in-depth, because some safety risks go beyond transporting a load from point A to point B.
For example, shifting materials onto shelving or raising them up to work table height presents MSD risks that should not be overlooked. Facility layout and storage systems are another factor. Fabricators in particular can run into problems when trying to find a cart that is long enough to carry industrial shafts and sheet metal, but maneuverable enough to pass through tight workspaces.
Every fabricating environment is unique and can change with each new project, especially in low-volume, high-product-mix environments. Here’s where that all-important walk-through comes into play. Walk-throughs reveal how employees are operating and help identify any additional issues with workcell structures, storage systems, and operational logistics.
Quite often some type of motorized platform cart is needed to accommodate the lengthy or unusually shaped materials. Standard motorized carts can improve matters, as can scissor-lift carts with adjustable heights—especially helpful when tackling ergonomics for a group of employees with varying heights and body types.Transporting exceptionally heavy or long materials often calls for a heavy-duty motorized transfer cart that can handle very large payloads. When designing these custom carts, a fabricator needs to consider the level of maneuverability. For example, in a facility with tight workcells and storage aisles, the cart might need to be engineered to rotate 360 degrees around its centerpoint.
Engineers can get creative in tailoring the final product to the needs of the fabricator by customizing the platform size, safety features, drive systems, and deck add-ons such as racks or shelving. Heavy-duty transfer carts can be designed to operate wirelessly, while the “driver” stands a safe distance away from the cart itself. Wireless control is ideal for a fabrication facility with space limitations or additional safety concerns that limit where employees can travel throughout the workspace.
Consider one fabricator that invested in a motorized transfer cart with side-mounted controls and steering to accommodate the length of the materials onboard. When beams, tubing, or extra-long components that will naturally extend beyond the platform of just about any motorized cart are transported, side-mounted controls help maximize platform space on both ends of the cart.
For appropriate applications, electric tuggers can be a versatile, cost-effective way to prevent MSDs. Tuggers operate similarly to an SUV towing a trailer, meaning pulling is usually easier than pushing or backing up. Though maneuverability is more limited with a tugger than a motorized cart, a tugger can pull multiple carts at once. With the proper hitching method, a standard tugger can hitch to and move a variety of manual cart types within its payload capacity.
Research, Education, and Engineering
Each of these ergonomic equipment categories is as diverse as the transport problems it is designed to fix, and it takes quite a bit of research, creativity, and expertise to find out which one is going to work for a specific application. Though every facility has its own challenges, one thing is clear about every fabricating operation: The most important step in combating musculoskeletal injuries isn’t simply going out and buying a piece of equipment. It’s the preliminary research, education, and engineering that allow fabricators to master the physics of their own workspaces.
About The Author
Author: Raymond Erbe is president of Electro Kinetic Technologies, W194 N11301 McCormick Drive, Germantown, WI 53022, 262-250-7740, www.ek-tech.com.
Electro Kinetic Technologies is an innovative company providing ergonomic solutions for transporting people and materials within the retail, healthcare, and material handling industries. Their extensive line of motorized products include, platform carts, scissor lift carts, electric tuggers, cylinder delivery carts, medical gas cylinder carts, linen & laundry carts, mailroom carts, patient transport chairs, motorized wheelchairs, medical records carts, medication carts, pharmacy carts, endoscopy carts and electric shopping carts.
With over 30 years of engineering design, product development and manufacturing expertise, they offer full customization of any product to fit their customers exact requirements. Over the years, their products have helped clients within multiple industries transport patients and materials safely while reducing employee injuries caused by musculoskeletal disorders.
Safety is of utmost
importance in every industry. If you deal with handling heavy loads on a daily
basis, then you must follow safe material handling techniques. It won’t just
reduce injuries but also increase productivity and profits.
This article focuses on 6 important
material handling tips.
6 Important Material Handling Tips
Design an Ergonomic Workplace
A workplace with the right
ergonomics will reduce various risk factors.
There are three common
ergonomic risk factors:
Forceful exertions like pushing and pulling or carrying heavy loads
Repetitive motions such as carrying, lifting or frequent reaching
Incorrect postures like bending and twisting
An ergonomically designed workspace considers the task requirements and the capability of your workforce in order to reduce fatigue and minimize discomfort for your employees. This further brings down the risk of injuries.
Use Proper Body Mechanics
is critical that the workers use their bodies properly while handling different
materials. Encourage good biomechanics and work technique amongst the workers. It
will also improve work processes and promote productivity.
The workers must follow the guidelines on carrying heavy loads for long distances. When possible, convert carrying tasks to push/pull tasks by utilizing carts. This will reduce worker strain significantly while increasing the number of items they can transport per trip.
Poor body mechanics and work technique will increase the risk of injuries. Get equipment that minimizes manual lifting and material handling, and switch carry tasks to push/pull tasks by utilizing carts where applicable.
Use Material Handling Weighing Scales
Incorporate weighing scales with forklifts and conveyor belts to boost productivity in the workplace. There are several advantages to using accurate material handling scales. Some include:
can weigh materials and monitor inventory accurately
efficiency and revenues
can comply with safety and health regulations
shipping and invoicing
Use Personal Protective Equipment
equipment (PPE) will prevent injuries that can otherwise be avoided.
When employees handle or
move materials manually, they must use the following PPE:
protection such as safety goggles
and forearm protection like gloves
or plastic metatarsal guards to protect the in-step area from impact or
Respond to Reports of Fatigue and Discomfort
Fatigue and discomfort are
common while performing manual material handling tasks.
If you notice signs of
fatigue in the workers, take remedial actions immediately. This would ensure
that the fatigue doesn’t develop into an injury which could require medical
Encourage your staff to
report instances of fatigue and discomfort. Implement control measures that
help in preventing fatigue from developing into an injury.
Use the Right Material Handling Equipment
Choosing material handling equipment is critical. The right material handling techniques and equipment will make tasks quicker, safer and easier. The workers should make sure their carts and material handling equipment are in proper working condition to ensure the maximum reduction in risk of injury.
Good ergonomic material handling equipment will reduce injury risks when workers have to lift or push and pull heavy loads. It will also eliminate the chances of musculoskeletal problems.
Using tools like carts and conveyor belt scales will improve safety while handling loads of different sizes and weights. Invest in material handling equipment like carts, pallets, shelves, and automated equipment. Bulk material equipment like trucks with scales might also benefit you.
Educate the concerned personnel about material handling. Provide necessary training to everyone. Make them understand the importance of observing safety while handling materials. Take advantage of technology to make material handling tasks easier.
Kevin Hill heads up the marketing efforts at Quality Scales Unlimited in Byron, CA. Besides his day job, he loves to write about the different types of scales and their importance in various industries. He also writes about how to care for and get optimized performance from different scales in different situations. He enjoys spending time with family and going on camping trips.
Wheel technology that exceeds ergonomic mobility standards