Everyone talks about food safety and operational safety, but rarely would you hear people talk about the comfort or ergonomics of those tasked to produce this safe food.
In fact, the issue of ergonomics is one area where no department wants to take full responsibility and the burden of action is always thrown around in circles with no amicable solution.
The strange thing about this denial culture is that even those overlooking the importance of ergonomics in an organization could be victims of its effects in the long run.
This is because everyone, from the lowest level of operations to the highest management levels needs to work in an environment that is not only safe but also comfortable.
The International Ergonomics Association (IEA) defines the term ergonomics as a scientific discipline that focuses on understanding human interactions with other elements in the work environment through application of theory, principles, and data to minimize workplace-related musculoskeletal disorders.
As you can see from the definition, this is an issue that affects everyone in an organization.
In simple terms, ergonomics involves studying workplace conditions and the demands of a specific task to improve the working conditions of the workers performing the task.
I will however focus more on the operations section in this article since that is an area that I have spent most of my food industry career time.
Since most of the work in food production and manufacturing is routine, there is always the risk of ergonomic hazards that could arise from repetitive tasks.
The Main Focus Areas of Ergonomics in Food Manufacturing
The concept of ergonomics cuts across all industries. It even goes beyond the formal work environment to our homes.
In this article, I will narrow it down to the food processing and manufacturing sector, especially at the production level.
- Physical Ergonomics
The production environment is a busy place that can either be dynamic or static depending on the type of product or operation taking place.
In such an environment, you would expect workers to be involved in repetitive routine activities such as:
Forceful exertion activities such as lifting, pushing, pulling, or reachingheavy load repetitively for long hours.
A sustained static posture such as standing, kneeling, crouching, sitting, or holding a tool for long periods during work.
Assuming an awkward posture when working on the production floor e.g. bending towards a conveyor belt to reach moving products.
Exposure to repetitive motion such as vibrations, chopping, grinding, filling packages without adequate breaks.
While most of these operations may seem inevitable in the production section, it should be considered that repeating the same actions on a daily basis can cause discomforts and long-term negative effects to employees.
As earlier mentioned, one common effect associated with physical ergonomics is the musculoskeletal disorder caused by straining body muscles with these repetitive actions.
- Equipment Design and Workplace Layout
Another focus area of ergonomics in the food industry is related to how tools and equipment are designed on the production floor.
In this case, the ergonomic focus will be on areas such as:
Poorly designed assembly lines that will expose employees to the physical ergonomic strains stated above.
These include; wide conveyor belts, extremely raised or lowered working platforms, steep sloping conveyors, poorly designed chairs, platforms without elbow rests, and excessive vibrating machines.
Poorly designed production tools that encourage awkward posture or fatigue when used repetitively.
These may include blunt cutting tools, tools with no precision grip, tools with broken handles, and modified tools that are not right for the job.
A poorly designed production layout that is not ergonomically sound due to a poor floor plan.
This includes high-speed manned workstations, congested workstations, low-lying roofs or ceilings, narrow workspaces, non-adjustable workstations, enclosed or totally isolated workstations, and a production layout without signs or markings.
The layout can also be too big but limiting to use of automated machines or equipment such as forklifts.
- Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
As much as PPEs are primarily used for workplace safety, they also play a major role in ensuring workers’ comfort.
This is why they are part of our major focus areas in food production ergonomics.
PPEs such as overalls, gloves, safety shoes, eye goggles, earplugs make workers comfortable when working on the production floor.
The PPEs reduce the contact surface between operation tools and employees’ bodies preventing discomforts that arise from using the tools repetitively.
Personal protective equipment should not just protect workers from accidents bush should also be comfortable while in use.
- Environmental Conditions
This is an important ergonomics focus area in food production because humans are meant to operate in conditions that are as natural as possible.
Working in an unnatural environment causes a lot of discomfort to employees.
Some unnatural working environments may include:
Stuffy production rooms with an environment filled with extremely hot and humid air such as retorting ovens and blanching ovens, and rooms with bad odor and inadequate oxygen.
Working in Extremely cold temperatures such as cold rooms, reefers containers, freezers, IQF machines, and blast freezers without proper PPEs or adequate breaks.
Working in dusty production rooms especially where milling operations occur without dust masks or enough ventilation.
Poorly illuminated production rooms with inadequate natural or artificial lighting. This hampers visual operations and may cause long-term eyesight problems due to eyestrains.
Excessive lighting can also be uncomfortable especially in areas with shiny reflective surfaces or screens with no anti-glare protection.
Noisy environment where noise levels exceed the acceptable limits of 90 decibels in the production setup. This can cause hearing problems if workers are constantly exposed without adequate ear protection.
- Cognitive Ergonomics
This focus area is aimed at assessing the mental processes that affect the interaction of workers and their working environment.
Workers in a food production setup have varying perceptions, reasoning, and thought processes as they interact with other workers and equipment at the workplace.
This can affect several factors such as their decision-making, their performance, teamwork, stress levels and their mental workload.
It is thus important to keep workers in a conducive environment that will not negatively affect their cognitive processes.
Ways to Improve Workers’ Comfort on the Production Floor
- Top Management Involvement
We can all agree that nothing ever moves smoothly if the top management is not interested in it.
The top management must be committed to ensure the workplace is designed to be comfortable to employees at all times.
This happens when the organization has a culture that values employees’ safety and comfort.
The management can help by:
- Formulating company policies that include workers’ comfort
- Enabling effective communication channels for workers to air their grievances
- Providing a conducive working environment with sufficient breaks and shifts with clearly defined role profiles.
- Allow job rotation and exchange of tasks within a repetitive and routine job.
- Having a budget for proper tools, equipment maintenance, and replacement of worn-out tools.
- Workers’ ergonomics training facilitation. The training can be internal or external depending on the organization’s capacity.
- Rewarding ergonomic champions and punishing those who do not adhere to the set rules and regulations.
- Having an “Ergo Eye”
Having an ergo eye means being aware of the simple things in your working environment that are not in line with ergonomic principles.
It is similar to risk assessment, but only this time you get to identify factors that may cause discomfort to workers.
Having a robust internal and external audit programs helps a lot here.
The best way to go about this internally is to allow people from different departments to audit the production room at regular intervals.
Someone who is not always stationed there can quickly identify a risk factor that the regular worker misses every day since the new auditor looks at it with what I call “fresh pair of eyes.”
Review these audit reports frequently to identify the areas that need improvement and make follow ups on corrective actions.
- Form an Ergonomic Team
Having a team of workers focusing on ergonomic assessment can help identify and solve many risk factors in production.
This team should be a multi-departmental team that cuts across all departments in the organization for better results.
The team should preferably be led by someone who understands the technical aspects of the production setup, for instance someone in the engineering department.
With a well-constituted team and a consistent ergonomics schedule, the company can significantly improve its workers’ welfare.
- Follow the 10 Fundamental Principles of Ergonomics
These principles are the simple things that workers should do to minimize discomfort while working.
With proper supervision and positive work culture, employees can easily adhere to ten main principles that guide the implementation of ergonomics.
- Working in a neutral ergonomic posture while sitting or standing. A neutral posture is where you avoid putting stress or strains on body muscles when sitting or standing.
- Keeping tools in areas where you can easily reach without stretching or straining.
- Working in a power zone. This is the comfort zone where you maintain a neutral position when lifting objects.
- Stretch and make small repositioning movements at regular intervals. Take breaks as required.
- Reduce excessive repetitive movements such as vibrations
- Minimize excessive force when working with tools
- Reduce contact stress on pressure points such as using tools that can cause blisters without wearing proper PPEs.
- Work within minimal fatigue and static load levels. Workers can alternate between sitting and standing positions.
- Work in areas with adequate height, length, and width clearance.
- Maintain a relaxed natural working environment with sufficient lighting, controlled relative humidity, proper temperature, and air circulation. A piece of soft music in the background could also help.
- Create an Ergonomically Correct Production Floor Layout
The production floor design should be able to accommodate all workers without causing stress and discomfort.
The size of the room should be big enough to accommodate the machines and workers without causing congestion.
The production room should be ergonomically designed to allow free unilateral flow of materials.
The workstations should have adjustable seats and adjustable equipment to accommodate workers of all sizes.
Footrests, armrests, sit/stand stools, and anti-fatigue mats should be provided in areas where workers perform their duties while standing.
To achieve this, the company should invest in quality initial ergonomic designs of the production layout to avoid making costly adjustments later on.
It is important to place signs at all critical areas where ergonomic practices should be observed in the food production floor.
Have properly marked gangways and instruction labels on production equipment, tools, and machines.
Every machine and operation should have a clear Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) that is understood and is easily accessible to all workers.
As noted earlier, the management should make deliberate efforts to ensure every employee in conversant with the signs provided and the SOPs.
Why Is Ergonomics Important in the Food Industry?
Several studies have shown that companies that implement ergonomics in their operations end up reporting significant improvements.
Some of the importance of ergonomics to a company include the following:
- Ergonomics help to reduce instances of injuries to workers, especially those caused by stress, discomforts, and musculoskeletal disorders.
- It boosts workers’ morale and thus increases their productivity and the overall quality of products and services.
- Reduces employee turnover since everyone is happy to work in a comfortable environment.
- Lowers cost of production due to decreased injury compensations by employees against the company.
- Ergonomics breeds a better safety culture in the organization since it improves workers’ engagement in taking safety matters seriously.
- A company with a good ergonomic culture has a significantly reduced cost of doing business since it avoids unnecessary medical expenses and lawsuits as a result of employee workplace injuries.
The thing with ergonomics is that, unlike common workplace hazards, the hazards associated with ignoring ergonomics take a long time to manifest.
If your organization has been ignoring this vital part of production, it is high time you bring up this idea and see how much difference it will make in the long run.
Let us make food production fun for everyone involved.