Prevent Ergonomics Problems


Yes, you’ll be much happier if you prevent ergonomics problems BEFORE they bring down your manufacturing line! See, manufacturing ergonomics can be tricky. For common activities like desk work, ergonomics has been widely studied.  But the ergonomics of manufacturing processes are usually not as well known. This can lead to problems. Rhonda unfortunately learned this the hard way… If you’re a regular PCat reader, you know that Rhonda is one of Process Cat’s friends, and she’s a retired RN who now runs a small business making and selling wooden items.

Process Cat encourages us to prevent ergonomics problems in our manufacturing
And gnome-shaped wooden beer mugs!

One of her popular products is a Gnome-shaped wooden beer mug! Recently, though, Rhonda branched out and acquired another business. She did this mainly to acquire the technology for their hit product, the Portable Pouch for Pebble Collecting!  (It was big with 4-year-olds.) The pouch is made out of cloth, and the cloth needs to be ironed flat before it can be cut.  But, the cloth has a special coating on it to prevent the dirt from the pebbles from getting out onto the parents’ furniture.  So the previous business owner, Jim, had designed his own special tool that doesn’t melt the coating. It’s much heavier than a normal iron, which means it doesn’t need to be as hot.

Jim easily lifts heavy iron
Works great!!!

Rhonda learns the new process quickly.  And then she turns her attention to what SHE knew she could do for the business, namely, scaling it.  Jim had been pretty old-school in his approach, only selling the pouches in-person at craft fairs. He also sat at the table at the fairs, so he was doing the sales as well as the manufacturing all himself. But Rhonda knew that by setting up a website and running online ads, she could generate a lot more demand and free up more time to work on the production.

But as the business scales up, Rhonda starts having a problem…

Rhonda in pain due to poor manufacturing ergonomics
Specifically, a problem with her shoulder!

The cause?

What caused this manufacturing ergonomics disaster?  Is it because Rhonda is physically much smaller than Jim?  Because she’s doing the process for a lot more hours?  Probably both.

At any rate, Rhonda sees that this process isn’t going to be scalable as it is.  But she can’t return the giant iron – it was a custom-made tool! So she ends up paying for a mechanical arm to lift the iron and place it back down, which costs a lot (and in many other cases, this type of thing can also delay a product launch!)

Now, this all sounds pretty bad, but don’t worry, it doesn’t have to happen in your manufacturing line. You just have to plan ahead a little!

Rhonda has her friend Process Cat over to ask for some advice on how she can avoid this problem in the future.

Rhonda and Process Cat talking with mugs in hand
It’s always better to have such a discussion with wooden beer mugs in hand…

Process Cat starts by encouraging Rhonda to see a physical therapist before the problem becomes permanent.  With that matter settled, he gives her


  • If you have employees, get employees of a variety of body sizes to try the process early on in development, before ordering any special tooling or formalizing the process.  If you’re self-employed like Rhonda, but may want to hire employees in the future, just have a few friends of different sizes try it.
  • If you’re a little further along, say you’ve just hired your first R+D person?  Make it a policy from the beginning that they need to do this type of assessment early on.
  • No matter what size your business is, use the Rapid Upper Limb Assessment (RULA) tool. The RULA is a worksheet used by EH&S professionals to predict when an activity will cause ergonomics problems and injuries based on objective information that is fairly easy to obtain, such as what range of motion the person’s joints will move through and how frequently they’ll be doing the movement.  You can find this tool by googling.

If Rhonda had known to do these things up front, she could have saved a lot of time and money.

Rhonda holds her shoulder in pain
Not to mention my shoulder!

Weekly Challenge:

Look for ways that you can apply this lesson in your own business.  Have you found any opportunities to try it?

M.G. Rhoads shares her deep engineering

through engaging stories that make manufacturing principles easy to use and understand.

“I show makers, inventors and entrepreneurs the secrets big companies use to run a successful manufacturing line!”

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