Workforce: How to Preserve and Strengthen the Workforce

Ergonomics may help solve the labor crisis.

U.S. industry is headed toward a workforce crisis that will require critical changes in the national paradigm. Not only is the workforce shrinking, it is also becoming more multicultural. In addition, workers now entering the workforce expect greater challenges and rewards from their jobs than did their predecessors.

In his keynote speech at the 2008 Material Handling and Logistics Summit, Benoit Montreuil, president of the College-Industry Council on Material Handling Education, warned that long-term solutions to the impending workforce crisis will require American industry to adjust its attitude toward the workforce and develop new programs to protect health and safety.

Montreuil believes the crisis facing labor-intensive industries is three-fold:

  • America’s workforce is shrinking. As Baby Boomers retire, there will be fewer workers to replace them. He believes that industry must move to protect the health and safety of this shrinking workforce.
  • The next generation of technology-savvy workers is gravitating toward more challenging, white-collar jobs. Most labor jobs are perceived as dull, entry-level positions requiring little skill. As a result, Montreuil believes, industry must focus on improved automation and technology that provides more challenging, varied and safer work environments.
  • Traditionally, labor jobs have existed on the bottom rung of the pay scale. New workers expect good pay and comprehensive benefits. In the past, many businesses have skirted this issue by either outsourcing labor jobs to foreign countries or hiring migrant workers. However, according to Montreuil, rising transportation and fuel costs, coupled with increasing overseas pay scales, are causing U.S. companies to reevaluate these strategies and study the potential advantages of returning production to the U.S. Adding to the trend is the fact that the current economic downturn has sent a number of immigrants packing. Along the same lines, it is expected that declining immigration levels will continue until the recession ends.

Ergonomics to the Rescue?
According to Peter Budnick Ph.D., president and CEO of Ergoweb, which provides ergonomics consulting, training and products, the implementation of ergonomics programs and installation of ergonomic equipment could become powerful tools in the fight to attract and maintain a viable workforce. Budnick spoke at the International Conference of Ergonomics in November 2007.

Ergonomics takes a human-centered approach to task and tool design. It recognizes differences in individual characteristics and capabilities of workers and strives to accommodate those variables with design of equipment and structuring of tasks. In effect, ergonomics attempts to fit the task and equipment to the worker, instead of forcing the worker to adapt to the task and equipment.

One goal of ergonomics is to reduce repetitive motion, repetitive stress and musculoskeletal injuries. Almost half of all lost workdays can be attributed to these injuries, and they cost U.S. industry more than $61 billion a year in lost productivity. An additional $20 billion is lost from medical and workers’ compensation costs.

According to Budnick, many companies fail to recognize the value of ergonomics because they misunderstand the concept and its potential application to their industries. A proactive attitude toward ergonomics, he believes, demonstrates value and respect for workers.

“A well formulated ergonomics strategy supports and accelerates continuous improvement in any organization, facility or supply chain,” he stated.

Integration of ergonomics practices and equipment into manufacturing and business operations improves productivity, quality, waste management and safety, he added. Also, ergonomics can “operationalize” a company’s respect for its workers.

“Ergonomics is essential in an effective continuous improvement system” in any business or industry, he concluded.

Strategies
When considering an ergonomics program, managers need to address several factors. Incorporating the following factors into the program will improve the chances of success and boost opportunities for cost reduction:

  • Amount and angle of force applied during task performance;
  • Velocity of movement required to perform a task;
  • Awkward or fatiguing postures required during task performance;
  • Repetition or frequency of task;
  • Duration of task and number of times per day it must be performed;
  • Vibration to which the worker is subjected during performance of a task;
  • Contact pressure that must be maintained during task performance;
  • Environmental factors in the workplace, including lighting, temperature and noise.

In most cases, a well designed, comprehensive ergonomics program can generate a one-year return on investment. The implementation of such programs across industries could be a cost-effective answer to the nation’s looming workforce crisis.

Jeff Berg is vice president of sales at DJ Products Inc., a manufacturer of electric cart and motorized cart pushers based in Little Falls, Minn. For more information, visit www.djproducts.com.

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