Plant & Works Engineering
Go lean
Published:  02 June, 2016

The risk of industrial injuries can be reduced in any manufacturing, warehousing or retailing application by simplifying the processes involved. This can be achieved by optimising workstations and handling equipment for ergonomic work using modular component systems. At the same time, it is often possible to remove complexity and improve productivity to generate a return on the investment. PWE reports.

Official statistics published by the HSE every year show that one of the biggest causes of time off work is accidents and injuries related to manual handling. Despite progress over the past decade these types of accident still lead to 28% (16,018) of "over seven day" injuries each year (based on figures to 2015, the last available data). Bearing in mind these are the accidents and injuries that are reportable by law the number of less serious – but equally disruptive to the individual or employer – injuries is likely to the much higher.

Malpractice and lifting items that are heavier than the limits recommended by the HSE are the cause of some of the most serious injuries. But many result from the repetitive handling of relatively small items. Generally categorised as “musculoskeletal” disorders (MSDs) these include repetitive strain injury, muscle sprain, back pain, and problems with upper and lower limbs. HSE figures suggest the total number of MSDs in 2014/15 was 553,000 out of a total 1,243,000 for all work-related illnesses with 169,000 new cases reported during the year. These resulted in 9.5 million working days lost at an average of 17 days per case.

To alleviate the risks associated with manual handling the HSE and others recommend eliminating the task altogether wherever possible. In many instances this is not practical because handling or manipulating items is inherent to the process whether this is item assembly, order picking or sales fulfilment. Instead the next best option is to simplify the process and eliminate the unnecessary movements, over-stretching and unnatural postures that raise the risk of injuries. This is generally the field of ergonomics and it is an area where best practice and lean processes converge.

Removing waste and improving processes is fundamental to lean concepts including Six Sigma and 5S. In any environment that involves frequent lifting and handling basic improvements can be made by positioning items in convenient positions where they can be reached easily and without the need to stoop, bend or stretch. In practice it is not too difficult to design a production cell, workstation or picking face to meet these objectives but building the installation can be slightly more problematic. A lean approach requires adaptability so that structures can be modified when the process or handling requirement changes to maintain ergonomic and operational efficiency. Standard equipment rarely provides a total solution and bespoke fabricated structures can be expensive and inflexible.

Many manufacturers, warehouse operators and retailers have realised that modular handling and storage systems such as Graphit from the Tube & Bracket Company offer the versatility they need to build bespoke structures but with the inherent flexibility to support change. Structures such as production cells, workstations, component stores, picking carts, and trolleys are assembled using interchangeable components such as tubes, connectors, roller-beds and wheels. Tubes can be cut to any length and connected in any orientation to create a robust framework and present items at precisely the right position for the most convenient access and ergonomic working.

All components are interchangeable and reusable which means structures can be modified whenever needed such as when the application changes or when incremental improvements are identified. The versatility of systems such as Graphit allows the integration of storage boxes, tools and equipment, noticeboards, display screens and power supplies. This ensures users can create workspaces that are optimised for their unique operational requirements.

The optimisation and ergonomic benefits that help to reduce the risk of workplace injuries and musculoskeletal disorders also help to improve productivity. Every workplace process can be broken down into a series of smaller tasks and movements such as reaching for a component, placing a completed sub-assembly onto a trolley or picking a carton from a storage rack or shelf. Each movement takes a few seconds which contributes to the overall time taken to complete the task. Anything which reduces the time for the movement therefore shortens the task and contributes to improving productivity. In practice the two easiest ways to achieve this are to remove complexity and number of movements from the task or to position items for the most ergonomic – and often fastest – access. The biggest gains can typically be made in the most intensive applications with the largest number of discrete movements but efficiency can be improved in almost every process with careful planning and implementation. Modular systems are ideal for this because structures can be created for the most efficient and productive working and modified when small but nevertheless significant improvements are identified. Return on investment is real and quantifiable because the improvement in productivity is also measured.

Manufacturers, distribution companies and retailers have all recognised the safety and productivity benefits of lean processes. Other businesses can make similar improvements to their own operations by embracing the same principles and by implementing adaptable workstations and handling equipment.

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