A Site for Sore Backs

"This booklet is an opportunity to try to solve one of the biggest worker's compensation problems plaguing American industry."

Editor's note: New guidelines to increase the safety of manual handling tasks are being finalized by a partnership that includes NIOSH, CAL/OSHA, the Material Handling Industry of America's EASE Council (Ergonomics Assist and Systems Equipment), and five other entities. The EASE Council's chairman is James J. Galante, director of Product and Market Development for Southworth Products Corp., the largest manufacturer in the world of lifting and positioning equipment for material handling applications. The company is based in Falmouth, Maine. Galante's experience in the scissors lift industry began in 1967; he heads the committee responsible for ANSI Standard MH29, the safety standard for industrial scissors lifts and tilters, and is vice-chairman on the Main Committee for ASME B20.1, the safety standard for conveyors and related equipment. He is immediate past chairman of the Lift Manufacturers Product Section, a trade association of MHIA, and chairman of the VRC Sub-Committee (Vertical Reciprocating Conveyors) of MHIA's Conveyor Product Section. Galante discussed the guidelines in an Oct. 5, 2005, interview with Occupational Health & Safety's editor. Excerpts from the interview follow.

The EASE Council is creating these new manual material handling guidelines in conjunction with NIOSH, CAL/OSHA, and others, correct?

Jim Galante: Yes, these are the principals. CAL/OSHA is doing most of the work to lay out the pages and create the Ergonomic Guidelines for Manual Material Handling, or EGMMH. The electronic version will be hosted by the Material Handling Industry of America.

For whom are the guidelines intended?

Galante: Really for the smaller companies. Large companies don't need the guidelines, as they have the health care professionals or the resources to hire them.

How will they be disseminated?

Galante: We will see the EGMMH widely distributed by CAL/OSHA, NIOSH, and by the many hundreds of companies that make up the MHIA.

This is where, in my mind, it gets very exciting. There are approximately 700-plus member companies of the MHIA. Now, not all of those companies have an interest in ergonomics. But I would say that, just off the wall, it probably affects half of them.

That's a high number, I agree with you.

Galante: Yes. Even if I'm 20 percent off, it's still a huge number. But where it starts to get interesting is when you think about this brochure, up under the arm of a salesman. Almost all of these companies sell their products through distribution. Some have regional managers, some have reps. But, in all cases, there's a structure of distribution to get products from the manufacturer out to the end user. And so there's literally thousands of salesmen that would potentially have this up under their arm.

So when the customer says, "Well, I'm trying to load these baskets, and we've got a problem," the salesman can say, "Look right here on page 13. Here's my type of product in the Ergonomic Guidelines." And he can point to his product right in the book--not necessarily by brand name, but he can point to it as, say, a generic tilter, or a balancer, or manipulator, or whatever the material handling device happens to be.

It's a powerful tool in the hands of the salesman, and I think the informed salesman is going to want to use this as a selling tool. The old adage, "The smart customer is the best customer," is never more true than when you get into ergonomics. I think when the end user looks on the Internet or calls a consultant about ergonomics and hears, "It's time to analyze things," it is pretty overwhelming. The guy with 25 employees in a machine shop not only doesn't have time for this; he doesn't understand it and doesn't even want to understand it.

But if there was a guide that he could throw on the lunchroom table, that he and his supervisor could thumb through and find machine shop problems and some solutions to solve them, on a pictorial basis--which is the way the booklet will be set up--it may be a very powerful tool for that size company.

Huge corporations do not need this guideline: What this book says about ergonomics, they've forgotten. So it is designed primarily for the small company, and that's where the majority of people work in the United States.

No doubt about it.

Galante: They don't work for big companies. The vast majority of employed people are working for companies with 300 to 400 people or less. And it's those companies that can't afford the health care professional, the ergonomist. Often, the HR professional is assigned this responsibility.

So the guidelines will be in a printed volume?

Galante: Yes. In my example with the company HR guy, even if he is not well versed in ergonomics, he can pick up this booklet, he can walk out and talk to the plant manager and say, "You know, I was looking through this booklet, and I found some applications that are very similar to what we're doing. And they're showing some choices of how to solve problems. What would you think of this?"

When and why did work on them begin?

Galante: In September 2003, I approached Mario [Feletto] with the idea to create a guideline that was task-specific instead of industry-specific. He thought it was a good idea and as he discussed it with others in the health care field, the idea grew into a team. The team that Mario assembled has worked very hard to pull the Guidelines together.

At your 2005 National Safety Congress presentation with Mario Feletto of CAL/OSHA Consultation Services, you and he discussed the frequency and cost of injuries associated with repetitive lifting, carrying, and reaching motions.

Galante: Why manual material handling? When you address that question, the evidence is overwhelming. No matter what statistics you look at--federal BLS, state, local, or even insurance companies--no matter what you pick up, manual material handling is somewhere in excess of 30 percent of all workmen's comp claims for musculoskeletal disorders. How much is related to what we call manual material handling is just staggering. So it is the number one problem. Everything else doesn't even come close.

Now, what are we going to do about it? We hope a big part of the solution is the Ergonomic Guidelines for Manual Material Handling. This booklet is an opportunity to help solve one of the biggest problems plaguing American industry.

How are the guidelines organized?

Galante: There's four parts to the booklet: the ergonomic process, the matrix, a series of chapters on common material handling tasks, and a resource/index. We've identified and arranged all the common material handling tasks into a matrix.

Say the problem is leaning over lifting parts out of a wire basket. There are all kinds of ways to solve the problem: For example, elevate the basket, tilt the basket, reach in it with a hoist, get the parts out with a balancer or a vacuum lifter. In other words, it doesn't mean there's a right or wrong way to get the parts out. There may be a number of choices.

That's the beauty of material handling. . . . There's all kinds of ways to do it. And what is right for Company A may not be right for Company B.

We chose a pictorial format so the reader is not reading chapter after chapter of text on how to solve material handling problems.

It will be much more useful.

Galante: This booklet is rising above . . . those commercial aspects of trying to sell a single product or a single solution. It's selling a variety of solutions and presenting them all in a somewhat equal format. The user has to decide what's best for him.

That's how the booklet's going to work. We've collected over 800 photographs from all over the material handling industry. . . .

Effective solutions don't have to be expensive or complicated, do they?

Galante: No, not at all. The EGMMH offer a whole series of "Simple Solutions."

In the material handling industry, especially with stand-alone equipment like balancers and tilters and so many of these ergonomic assist devices, these companies typically have demos, or what some people like to call try-buys. Demos are a good way to bring a piece of equipment into a plant to try it. To say, "OK, let's try this tilter. Let's see if tilting this wire basket up does make the job easier." In the material handling industry, there are a lot of demos being put into service for a day or for a week to let the customer try it.

And I think that's an important aspect of this, because ergonomics is a difficult thing to get your arms around. You may have the best device in the world, but like Ford Motor Company proved a few years ago, if the utilization of the device is not there--if the worker won't use it--it really doesn't matter. Ford did some studies a few years back and found utilization rates as low as 11 percent for some of the ergonomic equipment they'd bought because the workers simply said, "I don't want to use it. It's not fast enough, it's awkward, it doesn't allow me to get my job done in the time period I'd like to get it done."

So another important aspect of ergonomics, especially buying ergonomics equipment when it is needed, is making sure that the employee that's going to use it buys into it. If he doesn't, it really doesn't matter what the health care professional, the company nurse, or the ergonomist said they need at his workstation. Get the employee involved early in the process--he probably has good ideas how to do his job better.

That's why these try-buys or demos are very helpful.

Galante: I think so. If there's a message to your readers out there, they should be encouraged to ask for demos.

Some people who read our magazine will want to get their hands on the guidelines as soon as they can. Whom should they contact?

Galante: The EASE Council [online at www.mhia.org/EASE ], CAL-OSHA, or NIOSH. They're going to be the principal resources for this booklet. But, at the very best, it will be January of 2006.

The booklet is the first wave. We'll have tens of thousands of copies distributed. But the real excitement, in my mind, is not the booklet, it's the Web site.

We have some fairly obvious limitations with a paper document. There will be an independent Web site hosted by the MHIA. This Web site lets us expand things. They can look at, say, a picture of a tilter tilting a wire basket, and you can click on the picture and it explains what that product is. You don't have that luxury in the booklet. . . . Or we could add video.

What will the Web address be?

Galante: The hope is to have the Web site up and running at the same time the booklet is, because the booklet has to reference the Web address in it. . . . The Web site is going to be a wonderful tool for this kind of thing because there is so much information that the reader wants to source.

What do you believe the guidelines will accomplish?

Galante: I think the EGMMH will help thousands of small companies realize real improvements in the workplace. It will help guide the layman to not only understand where his problems are, but how to solve them systematically and logically.

Because the guidelines will be picture-driven, the engineering solutions are understood quicker and better appreciated. The guidelines offer not one solution, but many different ways to solve common manual handling problems. Hopefully, it will prove to be a valuable resource to a very broad spectrum of businesses.

This article appeared in the December 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the December 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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