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During the launch and management of any ergonomics program, multiple tools are available for measuring risk levels and tracking data, but nothing is more critical to the success of a company-wide ergonomics program than the effective implementation of a set of design guidelines for ergonomics. These standards apply to all levels of development and all types of production across most industries. When applied correctly, they can be used to make critical decisions that determine many key performance indicators in business, especially cost, time, and quality. Because they are so fundamental for success, ergonomists are frequently asked when they should be used and who is responsible for managing them.

When to Use Ergonomic Design Guidelines

A successful industrial ergonomics program involves an iterative process for evaluating the risk of developing a musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) for each job, determining the causes for the risk factors identified, implementing improvement ideas, and verifying that each improvement idea selected did, in fact, improve the MSD risk present in that job. Understanding the direct causes for the presence of risk factors is the first time that the process benefits from using the design guidelines. For example, if the risk factors in a job include elbow extension and raised arm postures, then a facility ergonomics team member trained in using the guidelines knows that the most frequent cause for these awkward postures is a horizontal reach dimension falling outside of the recommended range. Similarly, when a facility ergonomics team submits an equipment or process change to a plant engineering manager for approval, the engineering team can use the design guidelines to make changes based on the entire population of the plant, instead of just the individual operator the team evaluated in their risk assessment.

When deciding how much a dimension needs to change in order to remove an MSD risk factor from a job, the plant engineering team should not instruct the maintenance team to adjust equipment based solely on the operator who happened to be working at the station when the ergonomics team performed the risk assessment. Instead, they can use the design guidelines for ergonomics created to accommodate 95% of the adult working population to define how much a workstation needs to be adjusted. To continue the horizontal reach example, rather than creating a maintenance work order to bring an item closer to the front of the station only the 1” that the evaluated operator needs, the work order can request that the reach measures less than 21” so that all possible operators at this workstation will be protected from the extended reach. In order for these activities to function to this level, however, the facility ergonomics team and the engineering team must have a common understanding of how to select the correct guideline for comparison, the start and end points for each necessary measurement, and the basic principles of ergonomics that direct trade-off decisions. In addition, all maintenance personnel who will be making the physical changes within the plant must understand how the measurements are taken so that they can adjust the correct dimensions as requested.

Design Guidelines for a New Program Launch

For some companies, a new program starts by submitting a bid for how much it would cost to produce a product based on the design criteria provided, combined with that company’s knowledge of everything needed to manufacture that product. These bids are usually created by sales personnel using historical data on equipment costs, material supplier costs, timing, etc., who are often not trained to consider how ergonomics factors affect the new program design process.

However, in order for them to correctly estimate production costs and select the best manufacturing methods, they need to understand how using the design guidelines for ergonomics will affect engineering equipment selection, especially when this might increase up-front launch costs. When sales team members understand the business reasons for this shift in the design process, they are better able to communicate the trade-offs to customers to convince them that the long-term benefits far outweigh the initial investment.

The purchasing and packaging teams should also use design guidelines during the new program development process. Each new program involves negotiations with new suppliers and vendors, either for requesting component parts or sourcing the building of new equipment. These activities require purchasing and packaging teams to attach design guideline reference documents to all other requirement information they provide to vendors so that they have a complete picture of all criteria they need to meet in the proposals they submit. For clarity and an efficient process, purchasing and packaging employees should know where to find ergonomics design documents and which reference sheets should accompany select designs. For instance, when approaching vendors for quotes to build a standing assembly workstation for use in a United States manufacturing plant, the purchasing agent needs to include the United States Standing Assembly design guidelines reference document. Similarly, a packaging engineer evaluating how a supplier will ship a light component part that will be presented to the assembly station in the same box in which it’s shipped must provide the supplier with the material handling guidelines relevant to the current station design.

Ergonomics in the Design Process

Compiling all the launch data into the design for a new production line starts with evaluating design concepts in the form of CAD drawings, cardboard mock-ups, 3-D printed parts, etc., and comparing them as a complete design to the ergonomics design guidelines to identify potential areas of MSD risk. This step allows industrial, manufacturing, and product design engineers to make changes before any money has been spent on building materials or components. The design engineers involved can analyze how all the parameters interact within the job and make educated trade-off choices to balance function and usability. To that end, these engineers must be trained to select the right guideline, take accurate measurements for comparison, and prioritize potential MSD risk factors when necessary. These same engineers must perform evaluations in an iterative fashion throughout the design and build process to ensure that they can justify all design decisions, make improvements from earlier versions of the process, and track repetitive motion injury risk levels for each job within the new program.

Overall, for a company to realize the full value in an ergonomics program, it must incorporate the design guidelines for ergonomics throughout its manufacturing and design processes and train employees to accurately implement ergonomics in all of their decisions. Companies that maintain an effective program in this manner are able to report measurable improvements in multiple key business indicators, such as productivity and quality, as well as increased operator satisfaction.