Workplace productivity is directly tied to workplace design. This is most evident when we examine production jobs – jobs where there is a measurable output to employee actions, such as manufacturing, assembly and warehousing tasks.
Barriers to comfort also are barriers to productivity. Ergonomic risk factors also are time and motion constraints. It’s that simple – anytime you have to work in an awkward posture or exert excessive force, you are compromising both comfort and productivity. When the postures and forces are severe enough that they increase ergonomic risk, they also increase the time necessary to complete the task.
For example, an assembly job that requires operators to reach to the floor for their parts will require a few more seconds than one that delivers the parts within easy reach. A job that requires an assembly to be manually force-fit will require a few more seconds than one in which the assembly can be dropped in place. Not coincidentally, these are the same jobs that are linked to back injuries and other musculoskeletal disorders. When you introduce lean improvements over the entire job cycle and the entire shift, the improvements can be dramatic. It is not uncommon for companies to realize 20 to 30 percent improvements in productivity from good ergonomic job design.
A real-life example comes from a small manufacturing facility in Wisconsin. As production of a particular product ramped up, operators were complaining of sore wrists related to manually threading components together. A tool was developed to assist the operator with the threading task. As a result, output increased 15 percent while also relieving the operators’ sore wrists.
Another real-life example comes from a 160-person manufacturing plant in Almont, Mich. The company had identified a five-person work cell as its leading injury area with 10 recordable incidents in 1 year alone. The company identified and implemented 12 low-cost, high-impact ergonomics improvements, which reduced ergonomic risks and drove injuries to zero within 2 years. In addition, the output of the cell increased by 25 percent with no additional staffing.
In short, ergonomics links safety and productivity, and often improves them simultaneously.
The Lasting Power of Respectful Engagement
The vast majority of workers are smart, well trained and motivated to do a good job. They are knowledgeable about how to increase efficiency and quality. They want to work smarter, not harder. They don’t mind a fast pace as long as it’s a better way to work.
So why do continuous improvement initiatives often fall short of their goals and fail to keep employees engaged? One common reason is a lack of demonstrated respect. Too often, a continuous improvement team informs operators about what is going to happen to them, disrupts their daily routines in the name of improvement and then retreats to an air-conditioned conference room to figure out their next big idea. As a result, many “improvements,” even when made with an eye on the 30-inch view, are reversed seconds after the team moves out of the work cell.
To be effective, continuous improvement cannot be done to people. It must be done with them. Ask operators to identify opportunities to improve their jobs. Arm them with well-conceived ergonomic assessment tools. Make them part of the continuous improvement team and encourage them to act. In fact, ergonomics can be the key to opening up a whole new dimension to continuous improvement, driven by the shop floor.
Respectful engagement is durable and will help companies through some otherwise unmanageable problems. It is one of the most important elements in an ergonomics program designed to reduce workplace injuries and on-site absenteeism, and accelerate improvements in productivity and profitability.