Workplace safety is a critical issue for virtually all businesses today. Many are focusing too narrowly on isolated safety or productivity issues such as how much weight an individual can lift safely or how much break time is required to prevent Cumulative Trauma Disorders (CTD) or Repetitive Strain Injuries (RSI).


People are different, and trying to establish or adhere to a single concrete standard that is suitable for all workers is immensely difficult. What is suitable for one worker may not be safe for another. A 220-pound male can easily lift more than a 120-pound female. But if he lifts the weight improperly, he can sustain an injury that the smaller female can avoid by using improved material handling methods.


The key to workplace safety and productivity and improved business processes is not to focus on specific performance-related standards such as how much weight or how many repetitions may be safe. The key is to examine whether the work should be performed in that manner at all.


Workplace injuries can result from a combination of factors. It is not just how much weight can be safely lifted, it is the weight, coupled with the starting position and the ending position, the number of repetitions per hour, the amount of twisting or bending involved, the specific individual performing the task plus many other issues.


Consider the entire work process

It is far more effective to focus on the entire work process as an integrated whole and design an infrastructure where people, machines, processes and facilities all co-exist and where all contribute to their maximum potentials.


The goal should be to examine "questionable" work activities. Not to improve them, but to eliminate them. The key is to design a work environment where people can do what people do best and the automation and technology can do what it does best.


In print/mail finishing centers, a typical problem occurs when materials arrive at the loading dock and are off-loaded from a truck. Workers may pick up the boxes and place them on a cart for transport to another location. The boxes are then off-loaded and stored temporarily until they are picked up again and transported to another storage or staging area. The lifting process may be repeated several times before the materials are ready for the inserting process.


Each time when lifting, the worker has to overcome gravity. But the way to improve the process is not to ask how much weight is safe to lift. The key question is, why lift the box at all? If the worker is not adding value to the box of materials every time it is touched, then energy is being expended unnecessarily.


With a conveyor system and better staging, processing and warehouse controls, a six- or seven-step work process can be compressed into a much simpler and more efficient one- or two-step effort. From an ergonomic perspective, the change eliminates an exposure to possible injury. But from a business perspective, the improvement saves a huge amount of human energy along with time and money.


A fresh perspective

Changing the way people perform work often requires someone from outside the organization who can bring a fresh perspective and question why and how work is performed.


Adequate lighting is a good example. Often, the work environment in print/mail finishing centers is just too dark. Poor lighting typically results in high error rates as workers get frustrated and make mistakes. In some instances, the light required to perform a task may be 80-foot candles but only 20-foot candles are available.


The corrective action may be as simple as moving or adding a light fixture and placing the light directly over the work environment. But no one paid attention to it. A less than ideal work situation can be easily improved, and the adjustment can help boost work quality as well.


The payoff from this type of ergonomic review or analysis can be dramatic. Generally, 85% risk exposures can be eliminated through better work place design. Businesses can also achieve gains of 30% in efficiency or productivity as well as significant cost savings.


Which organizations can benefit the most? Those that are growing, especially those absorbing more work without any increase in floor space. Generally, these organizations have outgrown their floor space and people are working in cramped or cluttered areas and are not making the most effective use of their limited space.


Overcoming haphazard growth

In these situations, work processes have evolved over time and new or upgraded equipment has been installed based on opportunity or where space was available, rather than strategically where it makes the most sense from an efficient work flow perspective. The handling of materials is often repetitive and redundant while distances between related work units are excessive or inefficient.


By redesigning material flows, work flows and staging areas as well as possibly changing relationships with vendors to emphasize just in time (JIT) deliveries, significant improvements such as freeing up 25% of floor space can be achieved.


For example, in many organizations, the traditional purchasing function strives to acquire materials at low cost, which often results in the receipt of larger quantities of materials. But requiring an equipment operator to lift or relocate a heavier box of envelopes or inserts may not be the most efficient way to handle those materials.


Workers should perform the kinds of tasks that are best handled by people. If there is too much repetitive activity, then an automated or technological solution that is more cost-effective should be implemented. In fact, it is not uncommon for ergonomic reviews to result in a reduction of labor requirements of up to 25%. But most organizations take advantage of the savings by re-deploying those people to higher value activities. The benefit? They have the capacity in floor space, in cycle time and in human resources to absorb additional work.


The ultimate goal of ergonomics is to make every job capable of being performed by every employee, so no job is so difficult that only a specific type of employee can perform it. This form of job equality or flexible work environment brings three key benefits. First, it makes managing the operation easier because no single employee is irreplaceable. If a worker is ill, in training or otherwise unavailable, the absence doesn't hinder productivity. A manager simply re-deploys the people already there to fill the gap. Second, it provides employment opportunities to virtually everyone, regardless of physical ability. That dramatically broadens the pool of available workers. And third, it provides a more stimulating and diverse work environment where individuals have the opportunity to perform different tasks and aren't limited to the activity all day, every day.


This flexible work environment helps prevent injuries and their associated costs. But it also helps create a work environment that meets the needs and capabilities of employees, gives employees the opportunity to do the best job they can and feel good about it too. And that benefits the bottom line of any business.


Allen Coppolo, general manager, Pitney Bowes Work-Flow Solutions, helps companies optimize the flow of information and materials. Contact him by phone at 203-922-5079 for more information.