As an integrator for FANUC Robotics, North America, ESS has given a good deal of discussion to the advantages of increased productivity achievable when manufacturers automate their manual processes. A number of factors contribute to the increased production, including faster speeds, improved material handling, and reduced downtime associated with changeover. The ergonomics of automation are less widely discussed, but reducing workplace injuries also increases productivity and can save manufacturers thousands of dollars in lost productivity and worker’s compensation.
Ergonomic Injuries by the Numbers
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), “Musculoskeletal
disorders (MSDs), often referred to as ergonomic injuries, accounted for
28% of all workplace injuries and illnesses requiring time away from work
in 2009. (i) MSDs include sprains, strains, inflammation, degeneration,
tears, pinched nerves or blood vessels, bone splintering and stress
fractures. Repetitive motion injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome also
fall into this category.
A research paper published earlier this year, “An Ergonomic
Investigation of the Case Packing Line at Company XYZ” (ii) provides a
succinct analysis of the types of injuries and their impact on a manual
case packing operation. The paper determines that the most common injuries
were associated with the wrist and the back. (iii) Back injuries are commonly
the result of improper lifting techniques; wrist injuries are caused by
cumulative trauma disorders (CDTs), such as carpal tunnel syndrome and
tendonitis. In this particular study, seven OSHA recordable injuries
totaled more than $59,000 in workers compensation claims over a four year
period. (iv) While the paper did not include data for manual palletizing
processes, it is not hard to imagine a similar injury rate for that
physically demanding process. Data from the BLS further underscores the
lost of productivity due to workplace injuries, for example:
- 3,277,700 total reportable injuries; 965,000 of those injuries resulted in time missed from work
- 379,340 injury reports involved sprains, strains, and tears; 11% of those injuries (43,100) occurred to workers in the manufacturing industry
- 195,150 back injuries were reported; 10% (20,540) occurred
to workers in the manufacturing industry (v)
Strains, Sprains and Tears by Event or Exposure, 2009
(vi) Click to enlarge chart.
Strains, Sprains, and Tears by Affected Body Part, 2009 (vii)
Click to enlarge chart.
The case packing line study concluded that,
“The case-packing process should be further investigated in order
to implement changes that will reduce the ergonomic risk factors
currently present.” (viii)
|Robotics automation offers a
quick and relatively uncomplicated solution to reducing the
ergonomic risks of both manual case packing and palletizing
processes. Robotic case packers can quickly collate and load cases
of product, and often these systems require less floor space than
manual case packing stations. While the case packer still requires
human intervention to run the machine and re-load the case
magazine, the repetitive motions are handled by the robot, which
cannot be injured.
|Robotic pallet cells also
require a human operator, mainly to operate the pallet jack to
move pallets into and out of the pallet cell, but the robot
handles the case lifting and stacking motions, again reducing the
risk of injury to personnel. Even assembly and material handling
processes can present an injury risk to employees. Assembly
processes very often include repetitive processes that can lead to
carpal tunnel syndrome or tendonitis, as can some material
handling processes. For example, hand feeding a high speed blister
packaging machine can require anywhere from one to six people to
repetitively load blisters with product. Robots today have the
dexterity needed for many assembly and material handling
processes, allowing human personnel to be reassigned to duties
that are less likely to cause injury.
||Robotic Pallet Cell with
Looking at the bottom line only, by reducing the risk of injury to their
personnel, manufacturers can realize decreased downtime due to employee
absence as well as decreased worker’s compensation costs. This may lead to
increased profitability, which may, among other things, allow
manufacturers to avoid relocating their factories to countries with lower
wages in order to reduce overhead costs. Factor in the human equation and
calculate the number of injuries not suffered by employees, and
manufacturers can clearly see the ergonomic advantages of automating
i Bureau of Labor Statistics (11/9/2010) “Nonfatal
Occupational Injuries and Illnesses Requiring Days Away From Work, 2009.”
Retrieved from http://www.bls.gov 10/14/2011.
ii Schmidt, J. (2011) An Ergonomic Investigation of the Case Packing Line at Company XYZ. Retrieved from
iv Ibid.p. 49.
v Bureau of Labor Statistics
“Latest Numbers.” Retrieved from
Bureau of Labor Statistics (11/9/2010) “Nonfatal Occupational Injuries and
Illnesses Requiring Days Away From Work, 2009.” Retrieved from
http://www.bls.gov 10/14/2011, p. 5.
vii Ibid, p. 5.
viii Schmidt, p. 38.