In this interview, Professor Martin Schmauder provides an overview of how important ergonomics at the assembly work bench is to a company’s competitiveness, a factor that is often overlooked in industry.
Professor Schmauder has been the Chair of Labour Sciences at Technische Universität Dresden since 2000 and is an expert in workplace organisation, ergonomics, occupational health and safety and human resource management.
Which disciplines are relevant to research into ergonomics at the assembly work bench?
Ergonomics is an interdisciplinary field, which is also why it is so effective. It all starts with the person and their needs, so we need to understand physiology. We also need to have a grasp of biomechanics for forces and movements. Occupational hygiene is important for the working environment and occupational psychology for the actual content of work. When it comes to workplace organisation, a grounding in business administration is essential, while engineering is crucial for actually putting concepts and ideas into practice. It is a truly interdisciplinary field. Ergonomics specialists need to understand both the work and the people doing it and combine both aspects.
What kinds of risks do ergonomically designed workplaces help to offset?
Ergonomics is not just about risks, it’s about humanity and cost-efficiency, it’s about optimizing workplaces. Poor body posture and movement sequences need to be avoided so that people stay fit for work for the long term.
What do we need to take into account when putting ergonomics into practice?
We need to think about environmental and behavioural ergonomics. Ergonomically designed workplaces need to provide the right environment and conditions, while people also need to be trained from a health and safety perspective, so that they can and do use the facilities that are available to them. Such facilities could be a work bench or chair that personnel can adjust to suit their specific personal needs.
There’s a lot of talk about the specific personal needs of employees. What does that actually mean?
Everyone is different. We’re not made by a machine that churns out identical, quality-controlled parts. Our specific personal needs – both physical and intellectual – also vary depending on the kind of training or education we have. Factors such as gender, physical dimensions and age are also important, of course.
What kind of role does a person’s age play, particularly with regard to demographic change?
As we get older, our needs change. In particular, our physical and sensory abilities start to decline. Other elements may stay stable or even improve. For example, our ability to learn doesn’t change and our social skills improve. However, it is important to take into account the growing gap between high and low performance amongst older employees. Factors such as pre-existing illnesses contribute to this, while healthy lifestyle changes obviously have a beneficial effect.
To what extent can aids and tools at the workplace compensate for this age-related performance variability?
Adjustability is the hallmark of sound ergonomic design – ensuring that all employees can create the ideal working environment for their needs. However, these technical requirements are just the first step. Employees also need professional support in working out what the optimum settings are for them. The end result of this collaboration can be applied directly to equipment using coloured markings or can be stored in a memory function when an electric height adjustment system is being used.
Why don’t separate, isolated measures usually have the desired effect?
Work itself is not static and short term, it is dynamic and long term. We have to look at the whole working sequence and not just improve a small subsection. We also have to consider whether a particular way of doing something can actually be sustained for the long term. For example, rationalising away movements at the work bench so that employees don’t have to stand up and walk a few paces might be efficient in the short term. However, over the long term, changes like that may not be beneficial for employees.
When it comes to implementing ergonomics at the work bench, what would you say are the benefits of a modular work bench system based on a building kit system?
When using a modular system, everything fits together and can be extended. The advantage of a screw connection is that it can be disassembled. Mechanical engineers learn that in their first semester. And that is exactly what systems like these have going for them – they can be tailored to the specific working procedures and the people who carry them out.
One objection to a holistic system like this, which we hear a lot, is that ergonomics is just too expensive. Why is that not the case?
Work bench systems based on a building kit system can be used in a whole variety of ways several times over. If a product range changes – which is often the case today – these systems can be adapted and there is no need to buy anything new. When you take into account their service life, work bench systems aren’t really more expensive.
What simple tools can companies use when they are selecting ergonomic factory equipment?
Companies can now use planning aids, online configurators and digital ergonomics systems that allow users to incorporate the human factor into the work bench as early as the planning stage. Thinking about who is going to be carrying out which sequences at the individual work benches at such an early stage helps avoid the need for changes. Planners should therefore have a basic grounding in ergonomics.