by Marjorie Steele, Editor at IQS
Walter’s workstations would have never met OSHA’s health and safety requirements.
When my parents first moved onto 40 forest acres out in Mecosta County, far back in Steele family history, my mother made a firm (and wise) mandate: the house was her domain. No skillsaws in the basement, no vibratory bowls cleaning ammo in the living room, no lathes in the kitchen. Dad was free to pursue his messy hobbies, but he had to create his own space in which to do so. The result was something which later made Mom think twice about her mandate; Dad (we’ll call him Walter) built a 5,000 square foot 2-story “pole barn”, complete with a built-in grease pit, a saw table, a welding station, multiple lathes, air compressors and mountains of strange metal shapes he called “tools”. The barn is an immoveable feast of fasteners, pressure gauges, spare blades and half-empty cans of WD-40 piled in old Folger’s coffee cans and engine oil bottles, all covered in a thick film of sawdust, oil and time.
The “Pole Barn” (which may be used as a noun, verb or explative) is a cave of wonders for machinists, metallurgists, woodworkers, mechanics, hobbyists and lovers of grimy cast iron things, but it is not an example of safe, ergonomically designed workstations. Beyond Walter’s obvious neglect of cleanliness and organization (the ¾ socket wrench is in the seat of the 1963 MGB, next to the Schwinn bicycle that used to be orange), the Barn is a factory for carpal tunnel, joint arthritis, strained knees and hunched backs. There are at least half a dozen ways one could impale oneself at any given location, and it’s impossible to walk in a straight line. Lastly, I estimate Walter spent at least one third of his time in this glorious cave looking for tools or parts he had misplaced. In short, the Barn is a perfect example of everything a workstation in a manufacturing plant should not be.
Whether you’re assembling a plastic component, packaging products in boxes or machining metal parts on a lathe, the basic principles of a good workspace are the same: efficient use of space and attention to worker safety. Together these create a high-production workflow while lowering production costs.
First we have to consider what purpose this station serves. Let’s take Walter’s welding bench as an example: the purpose of this workbench is to provide a safe place to weld and fabricate parts. Because welding tools are costly, delicate and potentially very dangerous, another purpose of this bench is to keep these tools clean and away from dangerous situations. As disorganized as Walter was, he understood this very well and fabricated a special hook for his welding torch, a pocket for his face shield and gloves and canister holders which sat a safe distance away from the torch.
Many other workstation types – such as table sawing and machining – require proper care and respect for equipment, but all workstation types require respect for a worker’s time and health. If a worker must walk to a different station every time she needs a sticker for a box, not only is her time being wasted, but unnecessary stress is placed on her physically. A disorganized workstation means a lot of time wasted by trying to locate the proper tool, which should be readily accessible in a labeled drawer, cabinet or bin. Repetitive movements are proven to be physically harmful to workers, so all tools and supplies should be placed within easy reaching distance to make those movements low-stress as possible. As a hobbyist, I think my dad liked getting up and wandering around every time he needed a different tool. Your workers probably won’t.
Unless you run a metal fabrication shop, you probably don’t have the capacity to fabricate your own workstation, but don’t worry! There are plenty of fabricators out there who specialize in manufacturing sturdy industrial workstations designed for ergonomic worker safety and workflow efficiency, for every type of manufacturing.
Nothing is more costly than workplace accidents. The cost of replacing broken equipment can be nothing compared to the cost of worker’s compensation, possible lawsuits and a damaged reputation. Proper workplace training can be critical in creating a safe work environment; I read a blog a while back by an overhead crane manufacturer whose facility had an unfortunate accident caused by a worker who had not been properly trained on lift capacities and counterweight procedures. The worker miraculously came out with minor injuries, but both crane and load were destroyed, all due to inadequate training. A worker operating any type of tool at a workstation should have full knowledge of how the tool works and of safe operating procedures.
Knowing how and where to store and operate equipment is also vital to workplace safety. Power tools, cutting tools and small parts such as fasteners are far safer when they are tucked away in labeled workbench drawers than when they are lying out in the open, waiting to be damaged or to injure passers-by. The structure of a workbench or workstation should allow a worker to perform her duties with free range of motion, with tools and parts in organized bins close at hand.
Not all processes should be done at the same location, either. If an operation is especially hazardous, remove it to a different location to reduce risk of damage spreading if an accident did occur, and be sure your workstation is made from materials which will further reduce risk of an accident. This is preventative safety, something Walter wisely did with his maple syrup processing operation in the Pole Barn. If you’ve ever tried to make maple syrup on any kind of scale, you understand what an immense fire hazard the whole process is; not wanting the man-cave to go up in flames if the evaporator fire got out of hand, Walter took some corrugated sheet metal and put up a “sugar shack” 200 yards away – problem solved!
This is a weird word for a basic concept. Wikipedia defines it as the scientific discipline concerned with designing according to human needs. In other words, ergonomics is learning how to conform a workspace to workers, instead of trying to force workers to fit in an inflexible workspace. It turns out hard, flat-backed chairs cause severe lumbar strain – that’s why the office chair I’m sitting in right now has a curved back (it also tilts back and swivels – ergonomics can be fun!). See the diagram below to see all the other ways my workstation is ergonomically designed.
Aside from being comfortable, ergonomic workstations are essential in preventing worker injuries resulting from strenuous repetitive movement or long periods of time spend in uncomfortable positions (like sitting for 3 hours on Walter’s tin welding stool).
This we’ve covered in previous categories, but for manufacturers who aren’t yet sold by the promise of having safe equipment and injury-free workers, we’ll stress how much money proper workstations can save. Let’s say I’m doing some finishing work on a car bumper at my workstation. Every bumper takes me 30 minutes, and at the end of each process I need a special nylon screw. If my nylon screws are across the room in a community bin, this adds two full minutes to my processing time. Multiply by an 8 hour workday with 16 bumpers per day, and you have one extra bumper I could process each day if I had my own little bin of nylon screws. Multiply one bumper per day by 20 workdays per month…it adds up! And that’s not even counting the extra time it took me to find the screwdriver in a pile of disorganized tools at my bench – time which could have been saved with some bins and a labeling machine.
Different manufacturing processes require different levels of cleanliness; many electronics and medical device assemblies require low-particle cleanrooms, with cleanroom accessories and special lab furniture. Laminar flow benches are available for table-top particle-free assembly. Other processes, like welding and machining, are allowed a certain level of dirt…
Maybe this all seems like a lot to conform to, or maybe your facility is already set up to meet these criteria. Regardless, it’s never a bad time to look at your processes and make some positive changes. Take a close look at how safe your workbench processes are, both to equipment and workers. Are workers forced to stand on hard surfaces for long periods, or make strenuous repetitive motions? Measure the amount of time wasted by equipment or parts which are disorganized and find ways to optimize those processes with well-designed workstations, workbenches or shelving equipment. And don’t romanticize the sprawling wonder of Walter’s Barn – if he had organized his tools and cleaned off his equipment, the man could have built a spaceship.