The premise behind an ergonomics program is simple: Improving the fit between the demands of work tasks and the capabilities of workers can not only prevent costly injuries, it can improve a textile service provider’s productivity, product quality and overall business standing.
And employees will be happier, too.AREAS OF GREATEST RISK?
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) says looking for clues of stress or strain is the first step in a proactive ergonomics action plan.
Worker fatigue or discomfort, increased absenteeism, poor product quality or employee morale, production bottlenecks, missed quotas and even malfunctioning equipment can signal that there’s trouble.
But where in the laundry should one look for these signs? Phillips & Associates, a Minnesota-based textile management engineering and consulting firm, identified some areas in its seminar handout, Understanding the Application of Ergonomics in the Laundry Industry, available through its website (www.phillipsandassociates.com).
The firm says tasks or areas where laundry workers are at the greatest ergonomic risk include:
- Manual pushing and pulling of loaded carts.
- Unloading soiled-linen carts when weight increments are greater than 40 pounds.
- Any task that requires bending or stooping.
- Workstations that don’t address the fact that all people are not created equal in physical stature.
- Any task that requires standing on a concrete floor for long periods.
- Loading linen shelves at a height that is higher than the normal person can handle.
- Laundry/washroom floors that are wet.
Why is the ergonomics issue so important?
Service-level employees are in high demand, Phillips and Associates says, and tightened immigration policies have created a shortage of younger workers. The service sector is being forced to hire older workers, who are more susceptible to injury. And the slow economy is requiring retirement-age employees to work longer for insurance and basic healthcare needs.
The rate of injuries and illnesses for laundry and drycleaning establishments with 50 to 249 workers was 7.3 per 100 full-time workers in 2006, according to data compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, greater than workers who drill oil and gas wells (6.7).
Employers often find themselves paying for medical bills, either directly or through workers’ compensation insurance, while at the same time having to adjust their operations to cope with a smaller work force, according to NIOSH.ADMINISTRATIVE IMPROVEMENTS
NIOSH, in its Ergonomic Guidelines for Manual Material Handling published last year, suggests observing how different workers perform the same tasks to get ideas for improving work practices or organizing the work, what it calls administrative improvements.
The Ontario Safety Association for Community & Healthcare offers Ergonomic Guidelines for Laundry Workers, Supervisors and Managers, including:
- Eliminate or reduce the need to lift, lower, carry or otherwise handle heavy bags of soiled laundry, by using mechanical aids, minimizing the distance the load is carried, keeping loads at hip height, and arranging work tasks and physical layout to minimize the number of times the load is lifted or carried.
- Ensure that large bags of soiled laundry aren’t more than two-thirds full, or use smaller bags to reduce individual load size.
- Test the weight of laundry bags before attempting to lift them.
- Change work posture frequently throughout the day: rotate among tasks that use different muscle groups, alternate between tasks that you can do while sitting and that you can do while standing, and increase the variety of tasks.
- Avoid working to one side. If you must face one side, alternate positions to use the muscles on both sides.
- Use an ergonomically designed chair (back support and adjustable features) for seated workstations (e.g., for sewing, mending and marking).
- Avoid frequently bending forward by having work levels at or just below elbow height, and having work surfaces that are height-adjustable.
- When wearing gloves, choose a pair that fits properly. Hands become tired more quickly when gloves are too large.
- Use a sit-stand stool at standing workstations, or raise one leg and place one foot on a footstool or foot rail while standing.
Administrative improvements can help reduce workers’ exposures to risk factors by limiting the amount of time workers spend on “problem jobs,” NIOSH says.
But to eliminate many risk factors that can lead to injuries, it may be most effective to change these jobs through engineering improvements.ENGINEERING IMPROVEMENTS
These include re-arranging, modifying, redesigning, providing or replacing tools, equipment, workstations, packaging, parts, processes, products or materials, NIOSH says.
Manufacturers of commercial and industrial laundry equipment must balance productivity and efficiency with a machine operator’s comfort and well-being while on the job.
Washer-extractors and dryers have larger door openings placed at heights that make butting a laundry cart up to the opening easy for loading and unloading. Some models can be tilted, which further eases operator interaction. Basket designs prevent tangling of goods.
Automated material-handling systems such as monorails and conveyors can move soiled or clean goods from point to point, reducing worker contact.
Spreader-feeders assist in the feeding of large pieces to ironers. Advanced models feature cornerless feeding, enabling operators to toss any sheet edge onto the input conveyor without regard to orientation.
Linen carts are manufactured in many sizes and configurations, and can incorporate features such as large cutouts and designed-in hand holds.
The motorized material-handling equipment market has seen management interest rise dramatically as the issue of ergonomics is better understood.
“When I first started selling these 15 years ago, I got laughed at,” says Dan Cummings, president of PHS West, a manufacturer of motorized walk-along carts and tuggers.
The units can be custom-designed, incorporate cages or lift tables, and move up to 1,500 pounds at a 6-degree incline.
PHS West conducts a “cursory-level ergonomic risks assessment” for prospective clients. It’s non-scientific, but offers a good perspective of the issues facing them.
“I want to supply information that gives them the ability to make a good decision,” Cummings says. “Sometimes, that means they don’t buy our equipment. It’s not always about selling equipment.”
No matter what ergonomic improvements they put into place — administrative or engineering — managers should set a date to evaluate them, then try again if they didn’t work, NIOSH says.