Factory Ergonomics

Glass and metal fabricators adapt to enhance safety and efficiency
Bethany Stough
May 28, 2015
Wausau Window & Wall Systems extensively reviews work station design and offers more ergonomically friendly hand tools, such as pneumatic drills and drivers.

Whether it’s by lifting, pulling, pushing or bending, anyone working to fabricate glass and metal is required to physically interact with product on a daily basis. These repetitive physical demands can be harmful to workers’ health, and can negatively affect production efficiency and profits.

Considering ergonomics when purchasing and implementing new machinery and equipment goes a long way in alleviating workplace stress and injury, increasing productivity and decreasing costs associated with lost time. Improving a company’s bottom line starts on the factory floor with streamlined processes and improved quality.

Automation and flow

Factories designed for ergonomics maximize the automation and flow of the manufacturing floor.

Reducing human interaction in the interest of safety means that for an ergonomically minded factory, “automation is key,” says Bob Quast, president and chief executive officer of Lisec America. Proper ergonomic machinery should reduce “human interaction and stresses, lowering costs and increasing productivity and throughput,” he says.

The airport ladder at AGNORA helps employees easily access big, tall crates and trucks. The company added an ergonomic handle to allow a single person to maneuver the ladder when it is being retrieved or put away.

“We rarely pick up glass manually,” says Kevin Nash, sales and marketing for AGNORA Architectural Glass North America. The company, which specializes in oversized, heavy glass, upholds a philosophy of health and welfare. “We have 23 crane systems spread over a 230,000-square-foot shop floor. Overriding concerns for safety and quality supersede a traditional mindset for throughput.”

In an ergonomically designed factory, individual machines and workstations should be implemented in a way that improves the overall production flow of the entire manufacturing floor. Easy-to-use equipment and an efficiently designed shop floor limit touches between workstations, increasing productivity and reducing risk of injuries related to heavy material lifting and repetitive motion, sources say.

This requires companies to carefully assess current processes and observe potential areas of improvement. Wausau Window & Wall Systems, for one, has extensively invested in ergonomics and is constantly refining “nearly all metrics of performance and [utilizing] changes to the layout of the factory floor as one of the tools of improvement,” says Brian Vanden Heuvel, vice president of operations.

Quast says Lisec America receives requests from customers that involve ergonomically designed process improvements, including “manual versus automatic lifting, and [adjusted] type, configuration and placement of operator terminals.” Lisec works to ensure that its machinery minimizes repetitive actions, and addresses safety issues and comfort.

With Lisec’s Manual Loading Device system, users ergonomically load and unload mobile sorting buffers. Lisec also offers automatic features for the unloading of finished insulating glass elements from the production line, eliminating the need for a manual lifting process.

Addressing these very factors, Linetec has invested more than $3 million on ergonomic and safety equipment, including scissor lifts, automated washers, a pneumatically operated picking device and material lift tables, says Brian Stratton, Linetec’s safety manager. To further develop the efficient flow of the workplace, the company implemented the safety manager position and an Ergonomics Team to work together to identify problem areas and improve job functions. The Ergonomics Team has been trained using an Ergonomic Job Measurement System, a risk measurement tool, to “recognize opportunities for improving jobs, identify risk factors, and develop solutions to reduce those factors,” says Stratton.

AGNORA has made notable investments in equipment to make it easier and safer to move jumbo pieces of glass. Rotating tables, high/low crane controls, ‘aircraft stair’ ladders, an automatic cart caddy and more help shop workers access, manipulate and move big glass across the shop floor, officials say.

Companies can also make smaller scale ergonomic improvements for tools and supplies. Wausau, for example, has invested in more ergonomically friendly hand tools. AGNORA has upgraded its gloves, and is now using double under/over gloves, each customized to the worker's task. The company has also invested in fatigue floor mats for added comfort and less strain on the body.

Return on investment

Incorporating ergonomics into the everyday functions of a glass or metal factory directly affects profits. Decreased loss of productivity, lower worker’s compensation insurance premiums, and higher quality product push the return on investment.

Linetec’s Bal-Trol lifts omit the need for employees to physically lift heavy parts and avoid the risk of strain or injury due to improper lifting. Here, the Bal-Trol lifts move heavy extrusions, up to 30 feet long, from their storage to a cart of material in preparation for finishing.

Strictly economically speaking, Quast says the return on investment for updating machinery for improved workplace safety, comfort and efficiency varies from customer to customer, “depending on their overall needs and scope of their business. Most customers, however, shoot for a two to three year ROI for their machinery purchases,” he says.

Stratton says, “Investing in ergonomic equipment increases company productivity by reducing the physical effort that our associates must put forth in performing their jobs. Ergonomic machinery reduces injuries, injury expenses and lost time at work.”

By focusing on safety and quality over quantity, AGNORA has improved its bottom line by making itself a known safe environment. The company has had no lost time due to injuries, and has received rebates on premiums due to its safety rating, Nash reports.

Wausau’s Vanden Heuvel notes the dovetailed ethics and business sense of improving the factory. “Reduction in injuries is not only the right thing to do for your team’s sake, it reduces unexpected inefficiencies in the loss of key skills.”

See also...

Top Tips for Transforming a Factory for Ergonomics

Stough is managing editor for Glass Magazine, GlassMagazine.com and e-glass weekly. Write her at bstough@glass.org.