Ergonomics is a common term in factories and office buildings where assembly work and typing can cause repetitive-motion injuries to workers. Now it's becoming a buzzword on job sites, where ergonomically designed tools and equipment ease the strain of fast-track projects. Further, many electrical contractors are finding that ergonomics training can increase profits and reduce worker injuries. That's why many contractors are taking the time and spending money on ergonomics training.

Merriam-Webster's dictionary defines ergonomics as "an applied science concerned with designing and arranging things people use so that people and things interact most efficiently and safely-also called human engineering." Because of the increasing number of injuries caused by repetitive motion, excessive force and/or awkward postures and positions, ergonomics has become a critical factor in workplace safety. Ergonomics is the science that seeks to adapt tasks and tools to fit the person. It's a way of looking at the design of tasks, tools and equipment, workplace layouts, and the overall organization of work to fit the job to the worker, rather than the person to the job.

Injuries from poor ergonomic conditions typically involve the bones, muscles, joints, tendons, and nerves. Some of the chronic or cumulative trauma injuries are caused by tools being used today-even though many new ergonomically designed hand/power tools are being developed.

Lost time injuries from sprains, strains, carpal tunnel syndrome, and tendonitis (numbering more than 76,500 a year) result in almost a half million lost work days and 4 million lost hours, according to Scott Schneider, Ergonomics Program Director, The Center to Protect Workers Rights (CPWR), Washington, D.C. These injuries cost $56 million in lost wages and at least $400 million in insurance claims each year. The CPWR-which is the research arm of the Building and Construction Trades Department, AFL/CIO labor organization-has a Construction Ergonomics Checklist (that can be downloaded from www.CPWR.com). The form is designed to be filled out jointly by general contractors and union reps every two weeks. Because construction-industry contractors work in a highly competitive marketplace, they are especially concerned with the cost of workers' compensation EMR (experience modification rate-an insurance-industry guideline for setting premiums) and lost work time caused by musculosketetal disorders.

Some firms are actively involved in improving work processes, seeing this improvement as benefiting overall company profitability. The present skilled-worker shortage also makes retaining workers in construction a primary issue. Some electrical contractors are taking proactive step when it comes to ergonomics and safety.

Wes-Con Electric Inc., an electrical construction, maintenance and 24-hour emergency service firm in Trabuco Canyon, Calif., offers an ergonomics tutorial on their Web site at www.webworldinc.com/wes-com/. Located on the Tail Gate Safety Topic page, the tutorial gives some common sense solutions to basic job-site ergonomic problems.

Continental Electrical Construction Co., Skokie, Ill., uses its new 100-seat Tech Center for regular foremen meetings in which the latest ergonomics/safety issues are discussed as a formal safety program that focuses on reducing any type of personal injury. Each supervisor must complete an Accident Investigation Reporting form when a mishap occurs. The report, which includes a "Guide for Corrective Action" section that must be filled out, is then filed with the director of field operations. This information is later shared with all employees as part of the accident prevention program.

Ergonomic professionals

Ergonomic Technologies Corp. (ETC), Oyster Bay, N.Y., is one of the largest ergonomics consulting companies in the United States. The company assesses and redesigns products, tools, and workplaces. ETC's clients include Chrysler, toolmaker Ingersoll-Rand, paper-manufacturer Westvaco, Long Island Lighting Co. (LILCO), Rochester Gas and Electric, and Florida Power & Light.

"Ten years ago, I had to spell the word ergonomics to people," said Cindy Roth, ETC president and senior partner. "Once confined to academia, ergonomics has come to be seen by many companies as a valuable tool for increasing productivity as well as for reducing on-the-job injuries." If you can allow employees to be more comfortable, you can get tremendous productivity as well as quality from them, Roth said.

For LILCO, the consultant redesigned a plunger bar, a tool used for probing gas leaks that normally put stress on the wrist and shoulder. They alleviated this stress by redesigning the tool with shock absorbers. The firm has also worked on redefining medium voltage cable splicing methods, and it has done evaluation and training procedures for utility linemen to minimize their stress when working on overhead and underground electric utility lines.

The ETC staff (all Certified Professional Ergonomists) preaches five ergonomic risk factors: force, repetition, posture (e.g., how much bending of the wrist or other part of the body is necessary to use a tool), environmental (e.g., noise, heat/temperature, vibration), and personal risk (e.g., size, vitamin deficiency, certain syndromes, pregnant women).

By using an "ergo measure," ETC can study body posture and muscle exertion to better design a product. The firm also sells software designed to help companies manage their own ergonomics program. For example, if a worker has left shoulder pain, management can look at other jobs in a worker's department that has a different mode of activity. Giving that worker an alternate job within the organization means that person can be brought back to work sooner.

Ergonomic assembly line

At Lockheed-Martin's C-130J Hercules transport assembly line in Marietta, Ga., manufacturing techniques hadn't changed for 40 years, during which time more than 2000 C-130 aircraft were produced. The current plant renovation program is designed to turn the manufacturing of one of the company's most popular aircraft into a state-of-the-art, world-class operation.

At the heart of the "lean enterprise initiative" program is the installation of several sophisticated new manufacturing tools designed, built, and installed by the Hyde Group Ltd., Manchester, England. The Atlanta office of McClier Corp., architects, engineers and construction managers, is providing architectural and engineering services and facility requirements.

"The basic manufacturing tools of years ago were designed before ergonomics was a science," said Keith Mawson, McClier vice president of engineering. "Initially, manufacturing involved separate assembly of discrete subsections, which were then moved by crane to a final assembly area. So the new manufacturing advancement program addresses a number of ergonomic and quality issues."

Because portions of the assembly line literally move an airplane through the plant during production, the new floor slab sections accommodate trenches for compressed air, fire control systems and data communication circuits- and a new electric power distribution system. These electric power feeders and branch circuits address the issue of adequate lighting.

The new lighting is supplied by industrial-type 4-ft T12 two-lamp fluorescent fixtures with acrylic plastic lenses mounted on the project tooling (jigs) and work platforms around the aircraft. In addition, wheeled stations with these fluorescent fixtures are rolled inside a fuselage, allowing task lighting to be directed close to interior surfaces where intricate tubes, wires and components are installed. Other ergonomically helpful components include bench seating and "mini-platforms" that raise the floor level sufficiently to make overhead work on the fuselage easier.

An intricate data communications network using both Category-7 twisted-pair copper cable and runs of 18-pair multimode fiber-optic cable forms the backbone of the Manufacturing Assembly Tracking System (MATS), an on-line paperless assembly shop floor control system that, when completed, will have 50 terminals serving 300-plus users. Task status will be maintained "accurate to the minute," and the system will eliminate almost all paper usage and related nonproductive efforts, such as looking for engineering drawings.

"We can determine whether a given procedure puts too much strain on an assembler's elbow or shoulder," said James A. "Micky" Blackwell, president and COO of Lockheed Martin's aeronautic sector. "Then we can adjust the procedure so it's easier and less stressful. That makes for happier workers, better safety, and improved productivity."