Inside the Ergonomics Toolbox

This CD-ROM offers good introductory help for industrial environments dealing with manual material handling problems.

IN a perfect world, every company large or small would have a trained professional on staff to evaluate and solve ergonomic problems. But in the real world, the responsibility often falls in the hands of someone with little formal training.

"Companies may not have someone who knows ergonomics as a science, but they realize its importance and know that it's something they need to address," says Tom Carbott, senior director of the Material Handling Industry of America (MHIA). "A large percentage of the time, the responsibility falls onto someone in charge of various job functions, a multiple-hat wearer."

Recognizing what they felt was a knowledge deficiency, members of the Ergonomics Assist Systems and Equipment (EASE) Council of MHIA set out to develop an educational resource on ergonomic assist devices for the "non-academic" end user. With the help of the University of Minnesota-Duluth and Cleveland University, the Ergonomics ToolboxTM was created. Designed to assist users in task evaluation and equipment recommendation, the interactive, multimedia CD-ROM is a basic resource for assessing and addressing ergonomic issues in manual material handling (MMH).

Evaluation Tools
While the program is plagued with cheesy, almost amusing graphics, don't dismiss it for mere entertainment or a child's game. As in an actual toolbox, the real value of the Ergonomics Toolbox is definitely not in its general explanation of ergonomics, nor its video demonstrations of ergonomic hazards; they're only the outer casing or box itself. The real value is in the evaluation and recommendation segments; they are the hammer, screwdriver, and other tools even the most inexperienced handyman can't live without.

After the user identifies ergonomic hazards in the early parts of the program, he can enter specific task criteria, including the height to which an object is lifted, at what angle, how far it is carried, and how often the task is performed, into a simple on-screen form. Each of the form's sections includes parameters for guidance and an object to click on for further clarification. "All of the information required is fairly easy to ascertain," Carbott says. "The quality of the information is going to depend on the individual using the program, but most people would be able to provide numbers close enough to get a reliable result."

Once the form is complete, the user simply clicks on the calculator icon and the Ergonomics Toolbox uses the information provided to determine whether or not the task characteristics are above the maximum permissible limit (MPL), action limit, recommended force, or maximum force a worker can safely manage. A task can be evaluated based on up to three evaluation methods, including NIOSH, MITAL, and SNOOK, depending on which methods apply to that particular task.

If a task being performed at his facility is calculated to exceed safety limits, the user can continue to the program's equipment selector guide. Here, after the user re-enters some of the task characteristics, the program recommends ergonomic assist equipment (engineering controls) to address the problematic tasks. Each recommendation includes a written description and photograph of the piece of equipment. Unfortunately, the majority of these images are small and slightly blurry, but the name and description of the machine should suffice in finding further information and/or guiding purchase decisions.

Serving a Clear Purpose
While many ergonomic programs tout the importance of administrative interventions, the authors of the Ergonomics Toolbox take a more "proactive" approach. "Both engineering and administrative solutions can be employed, but to ensure the greatest ergonomic and productivity benefits, engineering interventions must be the primary focus in the industrial and manufacturing environment," the text explains in the Introduction to Ergonomics section of the program.

Is this questionable advice, coming from an organization comprised of several ergonomic assist device manufacturers and software programs? No, there's no fishy business here. Carbott maintains the program is pretty much a "break even" venture intended for educational purposes rather than profit. "We designed this program to bring the end user a higher level of awareness and understanding of the ergonomic process," he says. "We hope that they can later apply that knowledge when beginning a project where they deal with equipment vendors."

In the case of the untrained individual, the Ergonomics Toolbox accomplishes that objective. From the moment the user knocks (clicks) on the program's virtual door and throughout his tour of the cyber factory, he is given applicable information in a simplified format without too obvious a sales pitch. "The amount of attention companies pay to ergonomic hazards tends to be stimulated by agency standards, proposed or in place," says Carbott. "Irregardless of what you think of the standard, ergonomic controls do benefit the individual, the company, and ultimately productivity." [OHS endbug]

System Requirements
The Ergonomics ToolboxTM is a CD-ROM, single-user version. System operating requirements are an IBM® PC or 100 percent compatible computer (Pentium processor), minimum of 32 MB RAM to operate, 10x or better CD-ROM drive, a color monitor set at 640 x 480 or higher, and a Windows® 95 (or higher) operating system. It is priced at $75. For more information, visit www.mhia.org or call 800-345-1815.

This article originally appeared in the March 2003 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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