The Role of Ergonomics in Process Design, Product Design and Design for the Environment


Edward Grossmith, CPE
Ergonomics Resource Group
San Jose CA

Gregory Chambers, Manager
Corporate Environmental Safety & Health
Quantum Corporation
Milpitas, CA

May 1998

The role ergonomics plays in improving productivity and quality has been well documented although generally not well recognized. In most cases, ergonomics interventions have been reactive, i.e. initiated only after an injury has occurred and after losses have been sustained to both the organization and the worker(s). The opportunities for profitability that present themselves at the start of a manufacturing program production line, however, have been less apparent. The proactive evaluation of a new product and manufacturing process at the design stage, i.e. before losses occur, is of paramount importance. Ideally, these activities should occur with a fundamental need to support the productivity and profitability goals of the organization. This paper looks at the introduction of a new cohesive and cost-effective systems approach that encompasses Product Design, Process Design with Design for the Environment.

The ergonomist has several responsibilities in this area. These responsibilities are set against the background of understanding and supporting the productivity and profitability goals of the organization. This is in conjunction with the need to provide a safe and healthy work environment. The ergonomist should determine whether there are stressors present in the task and environment, such as excessive force, high repetition and awkward postures, that do not meet recommended ergonomics guidelines. Then, these deviations from the guidelines need to be quantified and qualified. From these findings the ergonomist will need to render an opinion as to the possible correlation between the recorded injuries and the work place hazards that have been identified. A further responsibility for the ergonomist is to recommend engineering and/or administrative upgrades that will further reduce the employee exposure to discomfort and/or stressors associated with cumulative trauma disorders (CTDs).

Historically, ergonomic upgrades have been introduced after a production line has been in operation for some time and after employees have incurred CTDs. Profitability losses at this point cannot be recovered; these costs include workers compensation, lost work days, restricted work days, productivity losses in replacing temporarily absent employees, rework, scrap, employee turnover and other penalties associated with lowered employee morale. Ideally, management wants these upgrades to be simple, fast and of a relatively low cost. Unfortunately, on a retrofit basis this is not always practical, hence the rationale for a proactive ergonomics design review.

The problems of introducing retrofits to existing production lines are frequently profound. Changing a conveyor height, for example, to better suit the employee population, can often require changing other work station and process equipment. This equipment modification is generally too costly, especially with there may be a need to shut the line down for an appreciable period. Additionally there is no budget for modifying existing programs and no engineering resource available; resource has logically been allocated to new products. The result of an ergonomics intervention is thus, to some large degree, a compromise solution. Certainly there are some successes where simple, cost effective solutions can be implemented but these appear to be more common at individual work stations and not with regard to the total production system.

The improper allocation of space, poor process flow, incorrect working heights, lack of consideration of seated versus standing modes, incorrect equipment design, etc., are thus important and fundamental system parameters that frequently cannot be retroactively resolved. Consequently productivity and quality penalties associated with these concerns must continue throughout the life of the production program with a concurrent reduction of profits. Unfortunately, new production lines seem to replicate these same problems.

A proactive approach to resolving these concerns is required to prevent their origination on the manufacturing floor. A motto frequently used is: "Design it Right the First Time". To do this, any design team must have a clear understanding of the productivity and profitability goals for the project. One key solution is to hold process design meetings for any new manufacturing facility. The ergonomist can play an important role with the design team in establishing and facilitating process design meetings. The ergonomist can objectively track performance to the organizational productivity and profitability goals. As well, there is probably no one more aware of the stressors present in the work place and the resultant cost penalties they represent. A common factor in all manufacturing disciplines is ergonomics, which might be viewed as the mortar that binds the production structure into an holistic system. There are also opportunities to involve the ergonomist in evaluating task design and workplace stressors as a pre-requisite activity for compiling a project scope of work and budget. Invariably, after a project is identified and the project budget is set, the ergonomist has difficulty in justifying additional monies for improved process designs. Again, ergonomics, which has no parochial boundries, can be the conscience of the project during this design process, supporting the project manager in ensuring that the overall system goals remain focused and weak links in independent disciplines are eliminated, or at least minimized.

The above discussion pertains to issues of function and cost but another key concern is aesthetics. In reality, aesthetics is also related to profitability in that the provision of a properly designed work place enhances employee work life quality and generates significant cost savings, or more correctly, cost avoidance. The design and installation of a manufacturing system with good process flow generally involves large capital outlays. Although the function and process flow of a system may be faultless, in many instances, the virtues of this functional continuity is lost as the visual impact to the worker is one of disharmony.

There are psychological benefits inherent in a work place in which color enhances the functional flow and positively affects the mood of the workers. Selection of a color that is complimentary to the predominant color in the facility can afford the same result of highlighting the presence of safety exposures while still enhancing overall visual appeal.

With all the many process designers working independently, there is a likelihood that the finished area can result in either a Disneyland or a grey, drab environment. The proposed design meeting can provide a forum to determine the colors of the system components, determine what existing equipment cannot be changed and what new supplier equipment has only a limited color selection. These fixed features can thus form the basis of a coordinated color scheme that visually reflects a good process flow.

Manufacturing clean rooms present greater opportunities for enhancing employee work life quality and performance than most work environments. Stressors in clean rooms arise from design features that do not meet employee physical, psychological or social needs. Apart from the usually fine task parameters, there are several unusual stressors present. They include: social isolation, confinement, restricted sensory attributes, loss of identity, restricted communication, clothing detriments and color deprivation.

Many of these concerns are beyond the scope of a specific process design review meeting and may need to be addressed separately as part of a generic approach to a company's manufacturing philosophy. There are, however, some practical improvements that can be immediately implemented as regards aesthetics for a new clean room facility.

It is apparent that white is used extensively for most features, including walls, floors, ceilings, work surfaces, gowns, caps, etc. This dramatic lack of color is a visual deprivation which is an additional stressor to those of tactile deprivation of clothing and social deprivation occasioned by the facility. History records incidents where prisoners of war have been subjected to such total white room environments as a deliberate form of psychological stress. Although it is not suggested that existing clean rooms have been planned to promote employee stress, the results can be equally damaging.

Most color considerations involve no additional cost over that of white; a coat of paint of whatever color costs the same. Walls can be painted pastel and still have a high level of light reflectivity. A blue color stripe can be placed around the top of the wall to simulate the effect of the sky. Windows are a prime psychological aid in enabling workers to feel less couped up and obtain outside awareness and should be employed wherever possible. Floor tiles can be colored, especially in areas that reflect pedestrian traffic flow. Art work may be introduced, although it should be sealed and easy to clean. Clean room garments can also be colored. Different colored hoods can be employed to readily identify key personnel. Containers can be of appropriate colors that identify their function, such as incoming parts, rejects or outgoing, etc. All of the above considerations follow the adage of "form follows function"

The selection of the system colors needs to be carefully considered for both their psychological and functional values and should be addressed by an individual who is adequately trained in this discipline. This individual will play an important role as an attendee at the process design review meeting.

The above addresses some of the concerns of process design and a manner in which they might be approached in the early stages of a new manufacturing operation. A virtue of this process is the level of awareness that manufacturing management can obtain of the total system before it is released to them on a pre-production basis. Management may wish to implement a formal sign-off at the completion of this design review, signifying that they consider the system design acceptable for transition from engineering into pre-production; a list of exceptions may be appropriate for resolution before formal production commences.

To a large extent, the interface of the ergonomist with the product designer has been limited. However, there are examples within industry where the human factors engineer has played a key role in the design of the product as it relates to the end user in the market place. The focus of the human factors engineer, however, has not necessarily been towards the profitability of the manufacturing organization, as manifested by increased productivity, reduced injuries and enhanced employee work life quality. This is typically the role of the ergonomist. Opportunities for product design enhancement are becoming more apparent as the process design review phase facilitates the linkage back to the prior step, product design.

Historically, product design has been a sacrosanct arena where manufacturing is required to build whatever is handed down to them from the design office. Manufacturability liaison has frequently been established but that objective has been focused primarily upon machine and equipment capabilities versus any consideration toward the capacity and capability of the worker population.

There are two important ways in which product design can be enhanced to help reduce exposures to employee injuries in the manufacturing environment: Training of product designers and a product review phase.

1. An ergonomics training module can be presented to design engineers in order to acquaint them with the types of stressors that occur in manufacturing and the penalties that ensue for employees and company profitability. Some representative examples of these opportunities include: Types of Material, Tolerances, Parts Entanglement, Parts Movement, Manual handling including packaging of the final product, Screw Fasteners, Accessability, Covers, Controls, Displays, and VDTs.

2. A product design review phase. This phase is probably already in effect but may be limited to just manufacturability concerns. Enlarging the scope to include an ergonomics review allows the designer to become aware of potential exposures to employee injury and lost profitability. Some companies may require a formal sign-off of the design by ergonomics, safety and industrial hygiene, and environmental. A design checklist can be very helpful to both the product designer and the environmental, health and safety department (EH&S) to ensure that all design aspects have been considered.

As stated earlier, ergonomics can be the catalyst for change in improving the design of both the product and process. A new discipline has emerged that enlarges the holistic scope of product design, manufacturing and distribution, levering a company's environmental capabilities to improve its business position. In this capacity, EH&S partners with internal business departments to develop value-added operating requirements in support of the goals of these business groups.

Design for the Environment has as its goal the reduction of environmental impacts through enlightened design of products, processes, operations, and facilities. An example where ergonomics integrates with Design for the Environment is in the area of hazardous waste treatment. Having a waste treatment system typically requires a fair amount of manual material handling. This presents the ergonomist with numerous process and operational challenges regardless of whether it is a new building being constructed or a waste treatment system that is being added to an existing facility.

Environmental product design (EPD) covers the total product spectrum from life cycle analysis, reuse, recycling, reclamation and disassembly. Reduced land fill, packaging waste and toxicity are additional objectives. EPD involves ergonomics where a choice of a more environmentally friendly material or a material with performance improvements has EH&S process implications, or, implications for packaging and resultant manual material handling.

Conformance with these environmental design criterion affords participating companies an enlightened competitiveness and a distinct marketing edge for their products. This discipline aligns company corporate, customer and governmental performance objectives into an holistic whole. Throughout these activities, process design, product design and design for the environment, wherever there is an interface between the worker and the environment, ergonomics has an important role to play. The ergonomist, with multi-disciplined vision, is not only a team player but has an opportunity to act as a facilitator within an organization, recommending new methods and highlighting opportunities. The perceived value of ergonomics will only be enhanced if profitability benefits are demonstrated. These cannot be adequately achieved in merely reactive work station evaluations. The challenge for the occupational ergonomist is to be pro-active, aligning his or her varied skills with the goals of business, speaking their languages of profitability, quality, productivity and environmental design and wherever employee interface with the work environment is involved.

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Last Updated: 05/31/98