Material Handling Equipment: An Ergonomic Answer

Converters and manufacturers be aware: If you haven't yet instituted an ergonomics program in your workplace, you may be required to do so by the end of this year. The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) proposed ergonomics standard is now in what one OSHA spokesperson calls the "quiet phase." OSHA hopes to have the standard in the Federal Register by year end.

This "quiet" phase has heard some opposition, however. For example, the Snack Food Association says OSHA's current ergonomics proposal is overly vague and will end up costing manufacturers and distributors both money and jobs.

But even if the ergonomics standard does not end up on the books this year, it is doubtful that the issue is dead; odds are ergonomic discussions are here to stay.

So what does this mean for you? It means your company may want to look into ergonomics-based roll handling practices (if it hasn't done so already).

It is something worth doing for both safety and economic reasons; according to OSHA, "work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) account for one-third of all occupational injuries and illnesses employers every year." The agency goes on to say, "These disorders ...constitute the largest job-related injury and illness problem in the United States today."

Many manufacturers have recognized the need for an ergonomics program on their own. OSHA reports, "Thousands of companies have taken action to address these problems. [We] estimate that 50 percent of all employees but only 28 percent of all workplaces in general industry are already protected by an ergonomics program because employers have voluntarily elected to implement [such a program]."

OSHA notes the disparity in these estimates shows that most large companies (that employ a majority of the workforce) already have these programs in place and that smaller companies have not yet implemented them.

For those of you—whether your company is large or small—that haven't initiated an ergonomics program, investing in material handling equipment might be a good place to start.

Chris van Haasteren, VP of Schlumpf Inc., Windham, ME, says that determining value is the key to choosing material handling equipment. "We've been offering material handling systems for about five years, and our design originally was a European design; consequently, it was expensive to produce. Then we realized that people aren't looking for the European Mercedes Benz in terms of handling equipment—they are looking for something that will help them avoid the most strenuous part of the process. To sum it up: In plants where a lot of our type of equipment provides an insurance policy against preventing injuries, the customer wants to see a value for that insurance policy. If it's too expensive, they simply won't do it; they'll assume the risk of an operator being injured."

Converters also are looking for user-friendly equipment, notes Scott Aasheim, general manager at Tilt-Lock, Plymouth, MN. "They're looking for something that's easy for the operator to control."

Aasheim says easy-to-control machinery is integral to ergonomic equipment and adds that Tilt-Lock is investing further in this design concept. "We're working on some new products that force the operators to keep their hands on the controls at all times. Then there's less of a chance of injury, due to pinch points or anything else."

Today, material handling equipment customers seem to be more in tune with their material handling needs, says Ron Marchewka, technical services manager, Dalmec Inc., Bloomingdale, IL. "Four or five years ago, customers would come in and say, `We want maximum weight, maximum reach. Get us this.' Now they're starting to understand that you build the piece of machinery for what you're using it for most of the time. Don't build the machine for the 5 or 10 percent [of the material you're handling], build the machine for the 90 percent and make it a good machine."

Investment in material handling equipment may not solve all your ergonomics issues, but it's worthwhile—for both you and your employees—checking it out.

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