Industryweek 2006 14993production

They're Not Getting Any Younger

Sept. 18, 2007
Focus on ergonomics is becoming more critical as the workforce gets older.

It's expected that the aging workforce will cause some aches and pains for manufacturers as the baby boomers retire and leave the plant floor without skilled replacements. But manufacturers already are experiencing symptoms of a maturing operations staff.

"There's a question of, 'If we have people who stay longer in the workplace, how are we going to accommodate them physically?'" says Brian Sherman, director of ergonomic services, The Ergonomics Center of North Carolina at North Carolina State University.

Some manufacturers are addressing their workers' decreasing physical capabilities by offering modified work programs. Sherman cites mailing equipment maker Pitney Bowes Inc. as an example of a company that provides a flexible work plan to reduce stress on older employees. The company, a 2004 winner of AARP's Best Employers For Workers Over 50 award, has a phased-in retirement program where employees nearing retirement can work partial days. Sherman also refers to "snowbird" programs companies have implemented that allow employees who migrate to warmer climates in the winter to return in the spring.

"I'll tell you a secret: Ever since we hired an over-50's crew, our production has doubled."

But what about reducing risk on the plant floor? A solid risk-assessment program can help manufacturers determine where ergonomics can be improved. Battery manufacturer Duracell, for instance, has formed an ergonomics committee to reduce the number of cumulative trauma disorders at its LaGrange, Ga., facility. Part of the process involves an ergonomics survey of all production jobs in the plant and assigning risk scores, according to an OSHA case study. The plant has also formed an "ergonomic task force" to identify high-risk areas. Improvements to date include automating loading and unloading stations, work height adjustments, redesign of workstations and job rotation.

Typically, new ergonomics programs will focus on such reactive solutions as work rotation and cell reconfigurations, Sherman says. But truly mature programs target the actual manufacturing process of products. In the automotive industry, for instance, when launching a new vehicle many automakers will conduct packaging reviews to determine production sequencing and accessibility. "It has nothing to do with customer service," Sherman says. "It all has to do with how we put it together. That's a sign of a mature program -- you're influencing the product in its assembly."

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