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Embracing Technology to Shape an Ergonomics Program

Harnessing rapidly advancing technology within your ergonomics program

We hear it all the time, technology is advancing rapidly. But what does this mean for ergonomics and where can technology support an ergonomics program?  

In order to embrace advancing technology within our ergonomics programs, we must first have a good foundation. An ergonomics program should first have the following key components:

  • Leadership support and accountability 
  • Strong ergonomic risk management process and tool(s)
  • Cross-functional ergonomics teams including operators
  • Strong incident investigation and corrective action programs
  • Clear ergonomic design guidelines
  • Methods for early reporting, case management and job coaching
  • Ergonomics training on body mechanics and ergonomic fundamentals

Starting with the above fundamentals, we can explore this rapidly changing world of technology. Be thoughtful to avoid patching a broken process with a technology band aid. Below we outline where new technologies could, or more importantly should, support the program. 

Collaborative Robots

These include cobots and industrial mobile robots. This technology typically has an attractive return on investment. They’re easily programmable, often bring significant risk reduction and free up employees to perform additional value added work.

Data Collection Devices 


We live in a world of big data, more data than most can effectively use. From posture to environmental conditions to health data, from wearables to surveys to cameras, it feels like endless possibilities for collecting data. Before adding to the pile of unused data, understand and set expectations on how the data will be used and what you are trying to solve:  do you anticipate job coaching, behavioral changes, engineering improvements, new risk assessment, cost justification? 

3D Printing     

    
Sometimes we have existing technology that can be used in new and innovative ways. For example, 3D printers. The possibilities are endless, 3D printing can be used to design custom handles for tools to custom ergonomic tools. It can even expand to other safety devices such as guarding. Using 3D printing for prototypes can also reduce the cost of reiterations as you make changes to the design. 

Exoskeletons     


Application, application, application. These devices are not intended to increase strength, but may be helpful in reducing fatigue caused by repetitive and/or sustained awkward postures that cannot be eliminated. Before implementing, investigate if and how the job can be improved to eliminate or reduce the risk to an acceptable level – this must be a robust process. Do your research, and ensure the device is appropriate for the application. Strategically design the implementation, introduce slowly, and follow-up regularly with employees. 

Computer Simulation

 
Timing is key. Building a virtual world after the production line is implemented offers less benefit than if built prior to design finalization. Team up with engineers to identify the best time in the design process to implement computer modeling.  

Once you’ve determined the applicability of a new technology, the fun begins. Cross functional collaboration and front-line employee buy-in is vital to the success of any ergonomics program, especially when considering new technology. Ensure the technology is socialized with operators to build a comfort level before bringing this to the shop floor. Be open and honest about the changes the technology will and will not provide. Educating cross-functional teams is important for everyone to understand where the technology could be applicable and allows them to help promote the changes. Overall, remember to celebrate the successes. This will help bring more interest to the ergonomics program and prompt others to participate and bring innovative new ideas to the table.

Written: Sarah Grawe, Ergonomics Manager, Cummins Inc.

The views expressed in this blog post are that of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the Campbell Institute nor the National Safety Council.

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