Building commercial jet airplanes combines complex technology with manually intensive processes. The Boeing Company has found that implementing good ergonomics in these processes has measurable bottom line benefits.
Boeing recognized that musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) risk factors were present in a difficult manual process known as Stringer Hand Finish. Not only did this job expose employees to many known MSD risk factors such as awkward body postures, forceful exertions, repetitive motions and hand-arm vibration, but there was also a history of recordable injuries and employee complaints of pain and discomfort.
To address these risk factors, a 3-day Ergonomics Improvement Workshop (EIW) was conducted. During the workshop a small team of process experts, engineers, ergonomists and employees diagnosed the current situation, determined and evaluated potential solutions, and implemented improvements.
The results of the workshop included the implementation of five quick fixes, and a plan for implementation of five engineering improvements over a one-year time period.
The quick fix improvements included: vibration damping gloves, daily tool maintenance, reenergize stretching program, part and job rotation, and a lifting policy.
The long term engineering improvements that were implemented included: custom designed height adjustable T-stands, custom designed low vibration grinders, improved cutter technology and programming, and lighter weight cutters.
Collectively, these improvements have resulted in fewer recordable injuries, decreased employee pain and discomfort, improved morale, and improved manufacturing efficiency.
Ergoweb (EW) spoke to Ben Zavitz, CPE, Ergonomist for the Boeing Commercial Airplanes Division about this case study:
EW: Thank you for sharing your experiences with our audience. One of the things that stands out about your approach is the team involved in the workshop. It includes ergonomics experts, employees, and other departments from your facility. How did you decide upon the team members? Were there any unforeseen benefits to this mix of people?
Ben: We knew that a multi-disciplinary team would be more successful at developing and implementing solutions than a small team of a few select employees. Our team consisted of representatives from Management, Manufacturing Research and Development, Manufacturing Engineering, Small Tool Repair, Employee Relations, Safety, and Mechanics from the Stringer Hand Finish area. We chose two groups of Mechanics from the Stringer Hand Finish area, employees who have never had a work-related injury and employees who have had injuries in the past. We believed that this cross-functional mix of knowledge and experience would promote effective solutions and the sharing of best practices.
One of the unforeseen benefits of a cross-functional team is knowledge of all aspects of the company. Members of our team had knowledge regarding management issues, new research and development technologies, portable tool concerns, employee relations and union polices, and manufacturing issues. Cross-functional teams of this nature involved in solution development result in automatic buy-in of solutions from all of the affected parties.
In addition, having a representative from Employee Relations on our team, we were able to address issues that arose concerning job rotation, working outside job titles, and complying with union collective bargaining agreements.
EW: Was this project a pilot for other similar processes in your facility, and if so, are there plans to follow this format with other work areas?
Ben: Yes, the success of the Stringer Hand Finish EIW encouraged us to use this approach to address other ergonomic process improvements in our facilities. Initially, we conducted similar workshops in all of our hand finish areas. Now, we are using this approach to evaluate all of our processes in the factory.
EW: Any other details or encouraging words you can share with our audience who may be dealing with similar situations?
Ben: My advice is to use a participatory approach to address ergonomic issues in your company. It is impossible for one individual or even a few individuals to understand all aspects of your companies business and the future direction of the company and its technologies. Using a cross-functional team of experts from various aspects of the company can result in much more effective and sustainable solutions. Sure, an individual ergonomist acting alone can be successful, but an ergonomist who gets others involved by taking the time to facilitate, coordinator and coach a team of dedicated employees can be much more successful in the long run.
EW: Thank you!
This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2002-07-01.