SYN] Magazine
#3 | 2019

The Art of Ergonomics


Good Ergonomics — the secret Star behind Business Success?

„Good Ergonomics is good Economics!"
H.W. Hendrick

“Ergonomics” is one of those words that have become part of our vocabulary without us having to think about them. Ergonomics is a relatively young science that combines the results of three disciplines: human science, occupational studies and production engineering. Specifically, ergonomics seeks to answer the question of how a workplace must be designed in order to ensure a perfect symbiosis between people and equipment (including machines and tools). The tasks involved, the general environment at the workplace and work organization are other key aspects that need to be taken into consideration in order to ensure good ergonomics. The main emphasis is always on physical and mental health.

Product Ergonomics vs. Production Ergonomics

In practice, we distinguish between product ergonomics (the design of products for ergonomic use) and production ergonomics. The objective of production ergonomics is to ensure that workplaces are properly designed with respect to human factors in order to ensure ergonomic production and assembly. Stress on employees is to be reduced and performance is to be optimized. While product ergonomics only considers the characteristics of an unknown user group, production employees are normally known and it is therefore possible to take individual needs into account.

Why is Ergonomics so important?

The effects of demographic change within society are already being felt in production. Not only in the office but also on the factory floor, ergonomics is playing an increasingly important role because poor ergonomics can cause illness in the long term. With extremely restricted movement, the body is often forced into a position which is anything but natural. Over time, the body will adapt to this position. In addition to the working position, external factors such as the weight and reaction forces of tools, repetitive tasks and the duration of work as well as relaxation times are key factors in possible health damage such as back pain and headaches, concentration problems and, in the final resort, significantly reduced performance.

Companies are increasingly taking into account the fact that illnesses caused by working conditions can be extremely expensive not only in terms of the treatment of sick employees but also in terms of lost productivity and quality problems caused by workplaces with poor ergonomics. Published studies indicate that these costs are often many times higher than the direct cost of prevention and rehabilitation. In the meantime, various regulations have been adopted in the field of ergonomics and employers are required by law to observe them.

€53 Billion for sick Employees 

The long-term trend towards higher absence rates among employees in Germany continues. In 2017, employers paid salaries to sick employees reaching an estimated total of €53 billion. In 2006, the figure had only been about €25 billion. Within 10 years, the cost of continued salary payments to sick employees has therefore more than doubled. One of the reasons is that more people in Germany are working than ever before and that they are also working longer than in earlier generations.

The number of musculoskeletal illnesses is statistically very high and they lead the ranking of major diseases. As people grow older, their physical performance deteriorates and there is a drastic increase in sickness and injury rates caused by wear and tear. It is therefore hardly surprising that older employees are sick for longer on average than their younger colleagues; on the other hand, younger colleagues have more sick notes.

Reducing Absence Expenses and Errors

The function of ergonomics in production is the individual design of assembly procedures, activities, workplaces and tools within a connected assembly system to meet the requirements of demographic change, productivity and customer orientation. The reduction of ergonomic burdens at the workplace also offers considerable economic potential in terms of cost optimization and quality improvement.In a recent study on the development of absence rates and errors in assembly, Professor Dr. Lars Fritzsche, Head of the Ergonomics Department of imk automotive GmbH, found that ergonomic improvements reduce the duration of absences caused by illness and the number of errors made by employees. It has therefore been demonstrated that ergonomics helps to minimize the absence of qualified employees and to improve the quality of their work. Ergonomic improvements have a measurable payback rate in the double-digit percentage range. Workplaces and work procedures should therefore be designed to avoid the exposure of operators to unnecessary physical stress caused by vibrations as well as avoidable noise and dust. Ergonomics is especially important in the case of hand-held tools because there is a direct physical connection between the operator and the work process. 

Ergonomics 4.0

It is by no means easy to achieve the major objectives of ergonomics. In general, current trends and developments pose fundamental challenges for companies:

1. Digitalization, “Industry 4.0” and big dataGrowing volumes of data, variant numbers and complexity in production.

2. New data acquisition systems: motion capturing, wearables, virtual and augmented reality, sensor systems, etc.

3. New technologies and assistance systems: such as human-robot collaboration (HRC), exoskeletons, etc.

4. Accelerated processes of democratic change: increase in ageing up to 2050, more employees with performance impairments, growing diversity.

Companies that proactively shoulder these challenges and integrate innovations in product and process design in a meaningful way benefit from ergonomic optimizations in several respects in the long term. Absence rates and operating expenses are drastically reduced, while the health and motivation of employees are improved. Quality enhancements make for greater productivity, sustained customer satisfaction and enhanced customer ties.

Pioneers of Ergonomics

Atlas Copco already recognized its responsibility as a manufacturer at a very early stage and launched its ergonomics program for industrial tools more than 60 years ago. Since 1958, we have consistently developed a specialized department with experienced industrial designers and ergonomics experts which cooperates closely with our customers and renowned universities throughout the world. Atlas Copco reinvests about six percent of its turnover in research every year.

The team provides support for the entire process of product development within the company, conducts internal and external training and works intensively on international research projects. Our experts are members of standardization bodies including CEN and ISO committees. They are therefore always up-to-date with legal requirements and actively help in shaping the standards of the future. Especially in the field of vibration standards, our experts play a leading role.

However, statutory requirements only represent the minimum standard for product development for Atlas Copco. Our customers often pose more stringent requirements for tools than those of the applicable regulations. For this reason, our ergonomics experts always start by evaluating customers’ experience and work procedures on site in order to take their requirements into consideration in the advice provided by industrial designers and in the development of actual products.

The 7 factors of ergonomics

We are committed to developing modern ergonomic products that offer our customers considerable benefits in terms of productivity, quality and the work environment. Tools must be designed to provide the highest possible performance in combination with light weights. The seven factors of ergonomics are key elements in the design of our electric tools.

Good ergonomics

 improves quality by reducing inaccurate work caused by fatique and poor accessibility,

• reduces absence expenses caused by physical overloading and resulting musculoskeletal problems,

 increases flexibility by providing more appropriate workplaces for the elderly, women and people with performance impairments,

 boosts added value by reducing unnecessary movements (bending, turning, etc) and waste in the production process

improves the motivation and satisfaction of employees, their relationship with their employer and the attractiveness of the company as an employer for specialist personnel 

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