Ergonomics Improvement Project Case Study
Sometimes the best way to learn something is to see an example. And that’s what we have for you in this lesson. Today we’re going to walk you through an ergonomics improvement project step-by-step so you can see with your own eyes the impact a proactive ergonomics process can have for your organization.
Let’s get started.
1. Job Identified for Ergonomic Analysis
Group 251 Packout
This manual material handling job was identified for ergonomic analysis based on an initial ergonomics audit/walkthrough, an injury record review and workplace athlete surveys.
Initial Ergonomic Audit/Walkthrough
If you have your “ergo eyes” on, you’ll notice right away that this job is a high risk area and should undergo ergonomic analysis. With frequent heavy lifting and carrying, it is obvious that there are potential ergonomic risk factors present.
The two main areas of concern were:
- Lowering boxed panelboards to pallets located on floor, and
- Carrying panelboard boxes from the packout line to the pallets.
Injury Record Review
Reviewing injury records is a good place to identify ergonomic improvement opportunities. This particular job had a history of injuries, including five OSHA recordables in the past three years along with 18 early intervention reports.
- 3 low back OSHA recordable injuries with 87 days of restricted duty
- 1 abdominal hernia OSHA recordable injury with 19 days of restricted duty
- 1 upper back/ posterior shoulder OSHA recordable injury with 32 days of restricted duty.
- 18 Early Intervention reports (early reports of fatigue, discomfort)
We can’t reveal specific cost information, but we can look at the average cost of similar injuries using OSHA’s Safety Pays Estimator:
Workplace Athlete Survey
The Workplace Athlete Survey is a great tool to involve the real ergonomics experts: the people doing the job. By using this tool, you can get feedback on what difficulties they are facing and what they think is causing them fatigue and hindering their work performance.
The results of the surveys for this particular job revealed high physical exertion levels and frustration with the job.
Low back exertion rates average: 4.6 / 5
Shoulder exertion ratings: 3.7 / 5
In addition to the exertion ratings, the workplace athletes made several insightful observations about the job:
- “Lowering the boxes to the pallets is the hardest part of this job.”
- “It really strains your back to packout these boxes to the pallets all day.”
- “Lifting off the line is not a problem, but carrying to and stacking onto the pallets really strains your back.”
- “We can’t just drop the panelboards onto the pallet because that can damage the panelboard, so we have to be fairly careful with it – it would be easier to just drop it, but unfortunately we can’t do that.”
- “I have some trouble with carrying the boxes. If I try to carry in front of me it really strains my back so I tend to put the box on my hip and hold onto it with one arm.”
2. Ergonomic Analysis
The Ergonomics Plus Assessment Method℠
The Ergonomics Plus Assessment Method℠ was used to perform ergonomic analysis for this job. This method is not an ergonomic risk assessment tool like the NIOSH Lifting Equation, REBA, RULA, etc. It is simply a method and format for conducting ergonomic assessments using a variety of assessment tools in the most efficient and systematic way.
The interaction between the workplace athlete, job tasks and the work environment is complex. The challenge is to assess the risk of these complex interactions in your workplace quickly and thoroughly. The Ergonomics Plus Assessment Method℠ is unique in that it uses SOAP analysis to take a comprehensive view of this complex interaction. SOAP is an acronym that stands for:
The SOAP method is often used in the healthcare field to analyze patients and form a diagnosis and treatment plan. In a similar way, this method analyzes workstations and job tasks using the SOAP method in order to collect data, assess problems, form solutions and make an improvement plan moving forward.
Each element of the Ergonomics Plus Assessment Method is included in the Ergonomic Assessment Form tool where each element is documented as it is completed. This tool allows you to keep all ergonomic assessment data in one place.
To get started, the Subjective data we gathered from the Workplace Athlete Survey and job observation was documented in the Ergonomic Assessment Form shown below:
With the Subjective analysis documented in the form, it’s time to move on to objective ergonomic analysis.
NIOSH Lifting Equation
The NIOSH Lifting Equation was used to evaluate the lifting portion of the job. This is a tool used by occupational health and safety professionals to assess the manual material handling risks associated with lifting and lowering tasks in the workplace. This equation considers job task variables to determine safe lifting practices and guidelines.
The primary product of the NIOSH lifting equation is the Recommended Weight Limit (RWL), which defines the maximum acceptable weight (load) that nearly all healthy employees could lift over the course of an 8 hour shift without increasing the risk of musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) to the lower back. In addition, a Lifting Index (LI) is calculated to provide a relative estimate of the level of physical stress and MSD risk associated with the manual lifting tasks evaluated.
The analysis for the Group 251 Packout job is pictured below:
A lifting index of 1.96 at the destination of the lift indicates this is a high risk job task.
The Snook Tables were used to evaluate the carrying portion of this job.
The Liberty Mutual MMH Tables (commonly known as “Snook Tables”) outline design goals for various lifting, lowering, pushing, pulling, and carrying tasks based on research by Dr. Stover Snook and Dr. Vincent Ciriello at the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety. The tables provide weight/force values, for specific types of job tasks that are deemed to be acceptable to a defined percentage of the population. This is done by comparing data for each of the specific manual handling tasks against the appropriate table.
The Snook tables design limit is 35 pounds with an actual average load of 44 pounds and a max load of 61 pounds.
The results of the Objective portion of the assessment are then documented in the Ergonomic Assessment Form tool:
3. Ergonomic Opportunity Identified
Assessing the Data: Is there injury risk?
Now that we’ve collected both subjective and objective data for the job, it’s time to assess the data to determine the level of risk present.
- Workplace athletes performing the job have indicated a high level of physical exertion performing the job.
- Workplace athletes have expressed a high level of frustration with the job.
- There appears to be a high level of exertion based on simply observing the job being done.
- NIOSH Lifting Index = 1.96 at destination, indicating high risk.
- Snook Design Limit = 35 lbs. Actual average load = 44 lbs. Max load = 61 lbs. Snook Risk Index = 1.74, indicating high risk.
- There is a documented history of injury at this job and high costs associated with those injuries.
All data collected suggests a high level of risk present at this job and action should be taken as soon as possible.
Given limited resources and many potential ergonomics improvement projects at this facility, it was important to place a priority level on this project. To do this, the ICE Prioritization Method was used to determine a score of 2, and the project was placed at the appropriate spot on the ergonomic opportunity list.
ICE Prioritization: High Impact (2) High Cost (0) High Effort (0) = 2
4. Best Solution Identified
Ergonomics Team Brainstorms Solutions
The next part of the improvement process is to develop a plan moving forward. In this case, the multi-disciplinary ergonomics team held a brainstorming session to develop solution ideas.
Three improvement scenarios rose to the top of the pile:
- Option 1: Develop job rotation schedules to decrease exposure to packout position to 2 hours/shift – however, this only reduces the NIOSH Lifting Index to 1.52.
- Option 2: Purchase and install 18 lift tables for each pallet location in the department ($3800 x 18 = $68,400) – however, this would not eliminate carrying, and ergonomics team members questioned whether or not workplace athletes would always take time to adjust lift tables to optimal height.
- Option 3: Purchase and install custom ergonomic vacuum lifting device and free standing bridge crane (2 systems required @ $34,829 each = $69,658 total cost).
5. Final Approval and Implementation
Option 3 was chosen as the best available option and cost-justified using the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries cost-justification calculator.
The cost-justification calculator is based on 250 case studies on the effectiveness of ergonomics. Here is a snapshot of the inputs of the cost-justification calculator:
As you can see from the image above, the average annual benefit of the Vacuum Lifting Table option is $55,709. In other words, the vacuum tables will pay for themselves in a little over a year and then add $55,709 to the bottom line every year after that.
Once the project was approved, an implementation plan was put in place with clear responsibilities and timelines.
The project went smoothly and the ergonomic improvement was successfully implemented!
Here is the after video:
6. Evaluation of Ergonomic Improvement
With the improvement made, it was important to close the loop on this project by evaluating it for effectiveness.
The improvement had very positive post-implementation reviews. The review identified an installation error on the bridge which was causing increased push/pull force due to friction from misaligned hardware. A maintenance work order generated and problem was corrected.
Pushing and pulling of the hoist lifting device was introduced as a result of this ergonomic improvement. Push and pull forces were measured after installation to confirm that they were within ergonomic design limits.
- Initial force required = 8 lbs.
- Sustained force required = < 2 lbs.
- These force requirements are well within ergonomic design limits per Snook tables.
Overall, the improvement eliminated exposure to the lifting and carrying risk factors identified as high risk. The workplace athletes performing this job are loving the new tool and appreciate the company’s efforts to care for their well being and make their lives easier.
This project was another ergonomics win for the organization. It contained costs, increased productivity and enhanced the safety culture.
Lesson 4 Key Takeaways
- Ergonomics done well can add significant value to your organization. This ergonomics project contained over $50,000 per year in costs.
- The ergonomics process needs to be systematic and each project should follow a logical series of steps in order to ensure a successful workplace improvement is made.