Building a Future for Distributors and Dealers of Building Products

April 2006                                Volume 45,  Issue 3

How to Save Your Work Force
by Megan Headley

was hand-loading six screws per hinge. There’s three hinges on the particular door that he was working on. It gets tedious on 500 doors a day,” said Chris Rogers, vice president of manufacturing at Robert Bowden Inc., a distributor headquartered in Marietta, Ga., speaking of an employee who works on a pre-hung door line. “He couldn’t load them quick enough, so we had an additional person standing on the front of the line helping him load them.”

It’s not long before an employee such as the one described above starts dreading coming to work. He may end up taking more and more sick days to recover from physical effects from the repetitiveness of a job that may be leading to musculoskeletal problems. Then the employer would have to average in the cost of the extra worker on the line, increased sick time for the original employee and insurance costs, as well as lagging productivity. What is the problem the manufacturer or distributor is faced with? In a word: ergonomics. 

The International Ergonomics Association defines ergonomics as “the scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of interactions among humans and other elements of a system, and the profession that applies theory, principles, data and methods to design in order to optimize human well-being and overall system performance.”

“As management, we have an obligation to 
design jobs as if we ourselves were doing the work.” 
—Mark Willey, 
president of Western Building Products of Milwaukee

In other words, ergonomics examines how workers interact with the workplace, and how the workplace can be designed to reduce employees’ fatigue, discomfort and the possibility of serious injury down the road. According to the manufacturers and users of machinery designed to make building products distributors more ergonomically-friendly, paying attention to employees’ well-being can save employers money and time in the long run. 

Why Worry? 

So why should employers worry about ergonomics in their facility? 

According to Bruce Norlie, president of machinery manufacturer Norfield Industries in Chico, Calif., there are two main reasons employers should be aware of ergonomics: “productivity and safety.”

Norlie explained that whether it’s back injuries or carpal tunnel syndrome that employees develop down the road, their safety is intrinsically tied to the facility’s productivity. Workers who take an increasing number of sick days—or the continual need to train new recruits when turnover becomes high—cost employers time and money. 

Joe Reams, technical supervisor at vacuum technology manufacturer SCHMALZ Inc. in Raleigh, N.C., said, “It can be very costly. I’ve seen smaller companies where it almost put them out of business.” 

“It can also result in a person not being as inclined to come to work for the day because he’s tired from the day before,” said Rogers. “So it helps increase absenteeism.”

“With ergonomics, one of the biggest issues is cost of insurance and workers’ compensation,” added Reams. “If employers do not employ ergonomics as part of their safety program and an employee gets hurt, worker compensation goes through the roof and you have to hire a new employee.”

And, after all is said and done, supervisors have control of the safety of their employees on day-to-day duties. 

“As management, we have an obligation to design jobs as if we ourselves were doing the work,” said Mark Willey, president of Western Building Products, a distributor in Milwaukee. “I have done many of the jobs here and I know it’s hard work. We don’t want our employee-owners going home at the end of the day, feeling beat up. Or a few years later, having to go elsewhere because their backs couldn’t take it. Now, what can we do to make it better?” 

OSHA Solutions for Preventing Lifting Injuries

OSHA considers two major categories of methods for preventing lifting injuries. Administrative controls mean carefully selecting and/or training workers so they can safely perform lifting tasks. Engineering controls attempt to redesign a job so lifting becomes less hazardous. 
OSHA’s suggested administrative controls include: 
• Training employees to utilize lifting techniques that place minimum stress on the lower back. 
• Physical conditioning or stretching programs to reduce the risk of muscle strain. 
Suggested engineering controls include: 
• A reduction in the size or weight of the object lifted. 
• Adjusting the height of a pallet or shelf. Lifting that occurs below knee height or above shoulder height is more strenuous than lifting between these limits. Obstructions that prevent an employee’s body contact with the object being lifted also generally increase the risk of injury. 
• Installation of mechanical aids such as pneumatic lifts, conveyors and/or automated materials handling equipment.

Ergonomics Problems

Knowing that ergonomics is an important consideration, employers must begin to assess their facilities for potential problems. 

For building products distributors, manual materials handling and repetitive motion are two critical problems. 

According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) survey, manual materials handling is the principle cause of compensable work injuries. In fact, one-fourth of all compensation indemnity claims involve back injuries caused by lifting, placing, carrying, holding and lowering, and over time can all lead to serious back injury. The survey showed that back injuries account for one of every five workplace injuries or illnesses, four out of five injuries in this category were to the lower back and three out of four occurred while the employee was lifting. 

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), no approach has been found for totally eliminating back injuries caused by lifting, though it is felt that a substantial portion can be prevented by an effective control program and ergonomic design of work tasks. For distributors, more machinery is becoming available to protect workers from musculoskeletal problems. 

Ergonomics Solutions

One example of the machinery available as an ergonomics solution is Norfield Industries’ ergonomically-friendly pre-hung door machinery, which includes machines designed to load and unload equipment onto and off of machinery and auto screw-feeding systems. 

“Before purchasing machinery to make the 
task of door hanging more ergonomically friendly, workers had to lead units 
on and off of different lines for each step.” 
—Chris Rogers, 
Robert Bowden Inc. of Marietta, Ga.

“We’re trying to deal with issues of potential back injuries and repetitive motions,” said Norlie. 

Another example is vacuum handling systems, such as those offered by SCHMALZ, that not only lift heavy items such as doors and windows, but also tilt and swivel to prevent repetitive motions by employees. 

Reams said, “All of our products are designed to lift from 50 to thousands of pounds.”

“Safety is a major issue for any industry handling glass,” added Reams. 

According to Reams, using suction cups puts an extra step in between the employee and the potential danger of broken glass, should an accident occur. 

Rogers added that the ergonomic machinery also prevents fatigue, another big factor in workplace safety. 

“Prior to having the equipment in here it was a very labor-intensive job,” said Rogers. 

He explained that before purchasing machinery to make the task of door hanging more ergonomically friendly, workers had to lead units on and off of different lines for each step. 

“What they were having to do ... was pick that unit up, take it to a separate table and nail the frame around it,” said Rogers. “Now we’ve added a framing table right there on the line.”

“They still have to move it [the door] off the rollers, but it’s only handled one time.”

In addition, the unit is now forklift loaded onto the line to prevent injury through lifting. The company’s problems of having workers feed 18 hinges into 500 doors a day, was solved with the addition of a screw feeder to the line. 

“When the screw feeder first came in here, [employees] were not very optimistic ... ‘Why are you introducing a change?’ they asked.” Rogers chuckled, “It might have taken all of six hours to sell it to them.”

Ergonomics Awareness

When it comes to finding ergonomics solutions, the right equipment helps. However, the best way to prevent injuries is by making employees aware of how to use machinery properly. 

“Probably the most important thing is proper training,” said Norlie. 

In addition, Rogers added, once employees are made aware of one ergonomic problem and how it can be fixed, they are often quick to point out other solutions. 

“What tends to happen, once you introduce something that is an ergonomically-sound option ... they start looking at other pieces of equipment and other more physical jobs around the plant and say, ‘what if we changed that ...’” said Rogers. 

Wise employers know that the cost of adding ergonomics solutions to the facility will be far outstripped by the money and time saved by addressing the solutions early. 

“Too often, the approach is: what is the cheapest possible way to get the job done? I feel this is short-term thinking,” said Willey. “We are always looking for ways to keep employees longer; we want them to have a career. Ultimately, we will provide the best service to our customers, when we give our people the best tools and work environment for doing the job.”

Megan Headley is an assistant editor of SHELTER magazine.


© Copyright 2006 Key Communications Inc. All rights reserved. No reproduction of any type without expressed written permission.