Industrial Engineer Engineering and Management Solutions at Work

July 2012    |    Volume: 44    |    Number: 7

The member magazine of the Institute of Industrial and Engineers

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Emerging Technologies

Innovative tools of the trade

Attention arms and wrists

Cumulative injuries due to excessive force, repetition and awkward postures have significant consequences beyond the cost of medical care.

Just for fun, let’s do the math. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that 750,000 annual workplace injuries are attributed directly to ergonomics issues, and the National Safety Council tracks more than $120 billion spent annually on ergonomics injuries alone. Given those figures, the average direct cost of an ergonomics injury is $160,000. That may sound far-fetched, but according to recent injury data from an aerospace company, the direct cost of a single shoulder injury requiring surgery averages $120,000. That cost doesn’t consider the financial impacts of second-order effects on lost time, training, quality and morale.

Lucky for the proverbial worker bee, many companies specialize in products that mitigate these ergonomic risks.

Equipois is a Los Angeles-based company that revolutionized the concept of tool handling by developing a patented ZeroG product line that “enables and enhances the most versatile tools in existence – human hands guided by the human mind.”

The company’s newest product, the X-Ar, is an exoskeletal arm support that bears the weight of the human arm while allowing full range of motion. This allows operators to work with outstretched arms for extended periods without the usual discomfort and fatigue. An aid like this would be a welcome addition to any job requiring extended periods of fine motor control such as precision assembly, pipetting or powder coating.

The X-Ar was one of the recipients of the ErgoExpo Attendee’s Choice Award at the 2011 National Ergonomics Conference and Exposition. This award recognizes new products that have the best potential to increase productivity and profitability while improving workplace health and safety.

A second 2011 ErgoExpo Attendee’s Choice awardee is the Simply Dump It. Perhaps an innovation that falls under the “Why didn’t I think of that” category, these pivoting wheelbarrow handles provide users with more control of heavy loads while also reducing strain on the wrists, elbows and back.

The Simply Dump It increases stability by eliminating the need to release or reposition hands while dumping a wheelbarrow. In addition, the pivoting handles mitigate ergonomic risks associated with constant wrist rotation, making the device a gem for material handling at construction and other sites. During transport, the handles automatically adjust so the wrists do not have to bend or twist to accommodate the wheelbarrow’s handle. During dumping, the handles rotate, eliminating the need for the operator to assume awkward wrist, arm and torso postures.

These award-winning products, albeit very different in terms of technical complexity, are excellent examples of ergonomic solutions. As industrial engineers, we must be ever vigilant in our pursuit of solutions that enable workers to sustain their performance more effectively.

Drew Harnish is the assistant regional vice president of IIE’s Mid-Atlantic Region and a member of IIE’s Young Professionals. He works as a consultant with Booz Allen Hamilton, a leading strategy and technology consulting firm. He holds B.S. and M.S. degrees in industrial engineering from the University of Oklahoma and is a board-certified associate ergonomics professional and Six Sigma black belt.