Solving problems is a creative, often serendipitous process; something that is harder to teach in grad school than identifying or analyzing risk factors, because there is no way to predict all of the possible constraints in a given situation. A pet peeve of mine in the field of ergonomics, is the use of the phrase “Job Analysis and Control,” which appears to imply that once the problem is clearly identified, a solution is immediately known, awaiting implementation.
Case in point: “lung gunning” in turkey processing plants. Several years back I spent a great deal of time in the meat packing and poultry industry. Due to USDA regulations and market pressures, many tasks in these plants were performed identically across the industry, and several were widely known as “industry problems.”
In the lung-gunning task, an eviscerated turkey hanging on a moving shackle passes by workers. Workers remove the bird’s lungs from the interior chest cavity wall by means of a one-inch diameter, stainless steel tube attached to a heavy-walled vacuum hose. This tool can best be described as a cross between an Uzi and a vacuum cleaner. Lung gunning is a difficult job, with a high rate of musculoskeletal problems. Consequently, a limited number of workers are capable of performing the task for long. If the lung material is not completely removed, complications with USDA inspection procedures occur down the line.
After observing this task in several plants, and attempting minor improvements with the shape of the gun, the height and presentation of the bird, and the length of the hose, I realized that the workers receive almost no feedback as they perform their task and they move the gun in an almost random pattern. A discussion with a skilled trainer confirmed that workers typically used 11 to 17 forceful arm and shoulder motions per bird to perform this task, which could theoretically be performed with seven motions, if they could see what they were doing. Complicating the task was a market that places a high value on birds with small evisceration openings.
Thus, the problem was identified, analyzed, and even a few modest controls attempted. The real breakthrough occurred many weeks later, when taking my kids to the local children’s museum, which happened to coincide with some type of dental hygiene promotion. A local dentist was using a small video camera, instead of the traditional mirror, which placed a live, color image of the inside of my kid’s mouth on a 19-inch television set. While he discussed dental cavities, my thoughts drifted to the kind that you stuff on Thanksgiving, because it became clear that equipment was commercially available that was small, survived in a wet environment, and was capable of being sanitized; all requirements for a Turkey Cam.
Surprisingly, none of the dental vendors I contacted were interested in expanding into the poultry industry; turkeys have no teeth. After extensive referrals, a sympathetic sales rep of an industrial and medical imaging device company agreed to loan us an appropriate fiber optical vision system for evaluation. Because this equipment was not USDA approved, a test location was set up adjacent to the main conveyor line, at a re-work station. Turkeys were removed from the line and experienced operators were asked to perform the task with the fiber optic camera taped along the axis of the lung gun, providing a live, lit, internal view of their progress on a small, color monitor supported on an adjacent stand.
Workers were quite skeptical at first, but several were persuaded to participate by the novelty of the evaluation. Although the test was only performed for one day, these skilled workers were able to reduce their number of strokes significantly, while meeting USDA inspection criteria, although at a slower, initial rate. The test suggested that with practice and optimization of the equipment, a significant reduction in risk factor exposure and an increase in the number of workers capable of performing this task were possible.
There were no complaints from participating turkeys, either. After all, who doesn’t dream of being the star of their own TV show?
Alas, not all great ideas are immediately adopted. The cost of off-the-shelf equipment, combined with the novelty of the approach and tight profit margins, made it difficult for any industry party to pursue further development of the Turkey Cam at that time. But the process of solving ergonomics problems lives on, including identification, analysis, constraints, creativity, and occasionally, looking at the problem from the inside out. *
Philip Jacobs, MS, CSP, is an independent consultant based in St. Paul, Minnesota, specializing in ergonomics and workplace safety. He can be reached at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2002-05-01.