Subscribe to Engineering @ Nebraska Online
For some, pain in the workplace stems from a colleague's bad jokes. Production line workers must more importantly avoid physical and environmental concerns that can harm livelihoods.
Employers are discovering occupational ergonomics: "The design and operation of all equipment, facilities, processes and offices ... to minimize employee exposure to the risk factors associated with musculoskeletal disorders," according to David Cochran, Ph.D., professor of industrial and management systems engineering at UNL.
Leaders at Cargill's Nebraska City plant asked Cochran, with 36 years teaching or working at the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration, to assist in developing an ergonomics plan for this operation, part of the world's second largest privately-owned company, as listed in Forbes magazine.
From 2007 to 2008, Cochran studied Cargill's 500+ Nebraska City plant workers on the job, where the work includes cooking and packaging beef and turkey items such as entrees for grocery stores and restaurants. He spent the most time focusing on workers dealing with high force and repetition, awkward or static postures, vibration, cold temperatures and fast pace.
Early on, he saw workers bending into waist-high floor bins to lift watermelon-sized pieces of beef or reaching across elevated, bed-sized trays with long sticks for scooping corners.
"We now know the triggers for injuries," Cochran said. "Ergonomics can reduce them."
Taking a step-by-step view of each task included observing degrees of movement, measuring work surface distances, and prioritizing adjustments that ease stress factors.
Cochran's work also assisted the plant ergonomics committee, comprised of line workers and management representatives. Committee members reviewed the job analyses, which were documented on paper and videotape, and helped assess challenges and decide solutions.
Instead of workers straining to lift heavy items from knee to shoulder level, mechanized bins can tip contents onto conveyor belts. Keeping work surfaces at waist level also makes sense.
Cochran's follow-up visit to the plant in September 2008 felt like the "reveal" on a televised make-over show. Prior ergonomics issues had declined, with changes earning an enthusiastic "Cool!" from the consultant. Night worker Sheldon Greenidge said he didn't miss the large-scale reaching and pulling work that felt "like digging through peanut butter."
"We're really encouraged with our progress," said committee member Chuck Jones, Cargill's environmental health and safety supervisor at the Nebraska City plant.
Bill Stieren, another EHS supervisor at the facility, noted that since the ergonomics plan was implemented, "zero incidents" have met criteria to be entered in the plant's OSHA log. (The number was never high, as some packing plants can be, but zero is the goal.) Even better, Stieren added, the culture is clear and expressed in "engaged employees (who) take care of each other," without hesitation to address problems and suggest remedies.
The cost to update work stations and add machines can initially appear high, but in the long run it pays to take care of employees, Cochran explained. Stieren agreed, adding that these investments help Cargill retain employees and be an "employer of choice."