26 ISE Magazine | www.iise.org/ISEmagazine
Following in
Frederick Taylors
footsteps with
Alcoa ergonomics
Various solutions show changing behavior
is the key step toward a safer workplace
By Timothy Pottorff
Frederick Taylor
March 2019 | ISE Magazine 27
I learned about Frederick Taylor, the founder of scientific
management, while studying ergonomics at Kansas State
University in Manhattan, Kansas, under the late Stephan
Konz. After graduate school, I accepted a position as
plant ergonomist at Alcoas Warrick Operations facility
in Newburgh, Indiana, in February 1992. As Taylor had
gotten his start in the primary metals industry, I was in the
“thick of things” with nearly 4,000 employees and, in a way,
walking in Taylors footsteps.
Warrick was a sight to behold, located on thousands of acres
in southern Indiana with its own coal mines north of the plant
and an on-site coal-red power plant it shares with the lo-
cal electric utility. The facility itself comprises more than 140
acres under one roof. Upon starting, I was given a site map and
assigned an electric scooter. I quickly learned that ergonomics
was not going to be exactly by the textbook there, nor were
some of my other experiences. In this place, we had to go back
to Taylor’s basics.
Born in 1856 in Philadelphia, Taylor is less well-known
for a book about concrete than for his study of the science
of work. He was the first to study work methods scienti-
cally and believed control of work should be in the hands of
management, not labor. He determined through the study of
shoveling materials that the optimal productive load was about
21 pounds. He designed shovels based upon the material to
be moved, and increased productivity. He also modified the
piece-rate system, which originally paid workers less the more
they accomplished, and instead correctly paid them more for
accomplishing more work.
Moving forward by going sideways
One of my first projects at Alcoa was with the manual han-
dling of small, specifically alloyed aluminum “pigs” in the
smelter. The task was pretty straightforward: To achieve the
correct alloy, externally sourced pigs had to be introduced into
batches of aluminum produced by the facility. The choice was
28 ISE Magazine | www.iise.org/ISEmagazine
Following in Frederick Taylor’s footsteps with Alcoa ergonomics
between a higher frequency of handling 8-pound pigs or a
lower frequency of handling 20-pound pigs, which was the
task design at the time. Given the task characteristics and capi-
tal restraints, our solution was to go to the lighter pig and in-
crease the frequency. While this specific project was less about
efficiencies and more about energy expenditure and physical
demands, at the very beginning of my career as an ergonomist,
I had been given the opportunity to practically follow in Tay-
lor’s footsteps.
By using the smaller pigs, the department was able to lessen
the physical demands on employees, which reduced risk for
injuries and illnesses. The lighter pigs also allowed more peo-
ple physical access to the task, particularly those with lifting
Thus, the department was able to
make a simple change in procure-
ment and had the option of using
job rotation if needed. It seemed to
be a successful intervention; I never
had to address the issue again, and in
this facility, employees, supervisors,
managers and engineers were never
afraid to voice their opinions or let
me know when something was amiss.
At the time the “new” National
Institute for Occupational Safety and
Health lifting equation had not been
widely circulated, so we were using
the 1981 version. The 1991 revised
equation uses several key components
of the lifting task, a predetermined algorithm, a load constant
and a set of multiplier tables to help safety and ergonomic pro-
fessionals determine a “safe” amount of weight a person can
lift under certain circumstances. The task components includ-
ed the frequency and duration of the lifting task, the starting
and ending horizontal and vertical positions of the hands from
the center of gravity of the body and the standing surface, the
vertical travel distance, twisting experienced and the hand-
hold on the object lifted. It also uses the average and maxi-
mum object weights. The algorithm calculates multipliers (or
use a multiplier table) then multiplied by a “load constant” of
51 pounds, the weight researchers believed could be handled
by healthy people in specific circumstances. Once the recom-
mended weight limit is calculated, the weight of the object
can be used to calculate a lifting index by dividing the actual
weight by the RWL. The larger the lift index, the greater the
risk for injury.
The data says what? Friends in high places
One issue that drove many decisions was the electromagnetic
forces created by the immense electrical currents running
through the giant smelting pots in the potrooms, which af-
fect the ferrous steel tools being used. This was the most chal-
lenging department in the plant, where ambient temperatures
seemed to be 100 degrees Fahrenheit in winter and even hot-
ter in summer.
In the potrooms, it was all about the tools: Big and small
tools, tools handled by cranes and by people and tools used
inappropriately. Tools were strewn around the department,
and (sometimes specialized, expensive) tools were frequently
crushed by earth mover-sized crucible carriers. The tools is-
sued were enormous. Departments had around 400 employees
working in extreme conditions – temperatures frequently ex-
ceeded 120 degrees in the smelting pots.
A cross-functional potroom ergonomics team learned how
many injuries and illnesses were simply due to employees not
using the correct tools, damage to the
tools and by tools not being easily avail-
able. In fact, tools at times were being
manually transported up to what seemed
to be the length of a football field.
In addition, steel tools were subject
to the electromagnetic forces that in-
creased employees’ exertion and made
their use unpredictable as they could be
pulled in various directions. The elec-
tromagnetic forces were such that analog
watches would not function, and if one
brought credit cards into the potrooms,
they likely would be turned into useless
plastic by the magnetic forces.
This was the challenge. Ultimately,
instead of reducing forces, as done with the pigs, we opted
to use a unique stainless-steel alloy not subject to the electro-
magnetic forces, though significantly heavier than steel tools
(traditional stainless steel will rapidly dissolve in molten alumi-
num.) With these tools, employees in the potrooms would be
better able to predict what they were up against and magnetic
forces would no longer be an issue. We also made various oth-
er changes to tools; at times, we had to try several variations
before we found something just right.
Once the tools were improved, the next step was what to
do with them. We knew tools were being crushed unnec-
essarily; broken or not, tools would be thrown down once
no longer needed. One finding from the data was that since
employees were using inappropriate tools due to lack of access
to the correct ones, a tool management system was needed.
We requested funding, then implemented such a system. The
tool management system cost about $20,000 and included a
set of customized carts for moving tools around and a series
of storage boards at various locations accessible to both the
services department and to employees in each room. The sys-
tem included a protocol for damaged tools to be placed in a
designated spot for repair to keep them from being destroyed.
An article in Alcoa’s newspaper
celebrates the roll cart designed by
production line employees to ease
access to tools.
March 2019 | ISE Magazine 29
The supervisor of the services department initially fought
the changes, but after a few months, he was practically bang-
ing on the door at the ergonomics team meetings to see what
else he could help with. The supervisor quickly realized that
by employees having this simple system, tools in need of slight
to moderate repair were fixed instead of being crushed, and
working tools were protected. This system saved his depart-
ment about $10,000 per month. As a bonus, the potroom em-
ployees no longer had to conduct “search and rescue missions
to find appropriate tools. (This was before many people had
heard of 5S.)
The lessons learned were that sometimes we had to walk
sideways or a bit backward before we could succeed, and that
the support of senior management was not just important but
In 1987, when Paul O’Neill took the reins as Alcoa CEO,
the company’s lost workday case rate per 100 employees was
1.86. Soon afterward, he shocked business investors with this
excerpt from his speech: “Our safety record is better than the
general American workforce, especially considering that our
employees work with metals that are 1,500 degrees and ma-
chines that can rip a mans arm off. But it’s not good enough. I
intend to make Alcoa the safest company in America. I intend
to go for zero injuries.” (Reinhardt Krause, Investor’s Business
Daily, May 21, 2001.)
By the time O’Neill retired in 1999, the Alcoa lost workday
case rate had dropped to 0.2. I would like to say I had a part
in that, and in my consulting work I continue to tell stories
and anecdotes from those days, as the lessons learned are still
Listen well and be respectful
The greatest test during my time at Warrick Operations came
at the beginning of an all-day training course. I was scheduled
to provide an ergonomics course to a group of 15 or 20 em-
ployees and supervisors. As we were doing introductions, we
came around to “Junkyard Dog,” who in the U-shaped table
layout was sitting directly across from me. He proceeded to
denounce the purpose and science of ergonomics as simply an
attempt to take his job away and give it to others.
Dead silence fell over the room. As I listened to the tirade,
I knew this moment would make or break me at the plant,
within Alcoa and possibly my career. JYD was testing my
mettle. I quickly realized he was just trying to see how I would
respond. I let him finish, tried to listen and realized he was
probably more scared than anything. In recent months, the
plant had experienced cutbacks. The former Soviet states were
dumping aluminum onto the commodity markets, sinking
prices. JYD was no dummy, and he incorrectly saw the science
of ergonomics as another thing to potentially upset his world.
I acknowledged his concerns about change and stated that our
goal was to improve operations so people could work without
getting hurt and to have jobs a wide variety of the workforce
was physically capable of performing. The goal was not to allow
other people to take his job, but rather to provide a safer work
environment for those already there and for those to come.
At our first break, one of the supervisors in the class took
me aside to thank me for how I had handled the situation,
saying he “would have punched him,” and that I had handled
it as well as possible. We all survived the day, and in the end
JYD became an integral part of the ergonomics effort in his
maintenance department, as well as a great colleague. He just
wanted to vent his fears that day.
That was a good lesson. Sometimes people just need to talk,
and we need to listen. In my years of consulting, I have learned
that the more opportunities I have to listen to clients and their
front-line employees, the more successful they are. Whether
with an office workstation evaluation or a manufacturing
process, taking a few moments to close my mouth and listen
enables the client to help me better understand the situation.
When I do talk with a client, particularly on the job site, I
do my best to help them understand where they want to be
from both short-term and long-term ergonomics perspectives.
I help them identify risk factors that affect not only human
safety and performance, but which also impact quality, pro-
ductivity and profitability, then work with them.
There will always be some who will talk just to talk; how-
ever, the key is to stay on subject and focus on the specific
needs identified. The next step I take, particularly in a nonof-
fice environment like manufacturing or processing, is to ask
which metrics are most important. How do we approach the
assessment and the collection of data so the best case may be
made from a quality, productivity, performance and profit-
ability standpoint? No client wants to see people injured, but
sometimes reducing risk of injuries and illnesses by itself will
not be enough to achieve approval to spend more capital.
Trust your gut – literally
At Alcoa, I had the opportunity to take Don Wassermans
NIOSH vibration course. This course went into depths about
hand-arm and whole-body vibration, the causes and symp-
toms of vibration-related disorders and solutions. The practical
concepts I learned have stayed with me.
When an object vibrates, it can be found to be constant-
ly accelerating first in one then the other. Most vibration is
measured by acceleration (meter per second squared) and ac-
celerometers are used to measure this acceleration. Vibration
frequency is measured in hertz.
In his book 8 Human Aspects of Occupational Vibration, Was-
serman states, “Probably during the time when ancient man
(sic) first assembled his shelter and used rocks as a hammer he
(sic) noticed the sting of vibration impacts ringing through his
unprotected hands. Similarly, during the time ... when man
(sic) took to the sea ... the debilitating and often incapacitating
30 ISE Magazine | www.iise.org/ISEmagazine
Following in Frederick Taylor’s footsteps with Alcoa ergonomics
effects of low frequency vibration were most likely known.
There are two major types of vibration: Hand-arm, also
called “segmental,” where vibration is transmitted from a
tool to one or both hands; and whole body, where vibration
is transmitted to the body from operating a vehicle or piece of
equipment through a seat or a standing surface.
Common symptoms of segmental vibration exposure in-
clude numbness, “coldness” and tingling in the affected areas.
Blood circulation can be restricted by damage to blood vessels
and a paling of the hands and fingers from this can result in
what is called primary Raynauds disease, or more commonly,
“vibration white finger.” This vibration can come from oper-
ating tools such as impact wrenches, chain saws, chippers and
grinder. In extreme cases, gangrene might have set in before
modern occupational medicine and workers’ compensation
insurance programs became ubiquitous.
Common symptoms of whole-body vibration include upset
stomach and nausea as well as lower back pain, with the spine
changed from being a supporting structure to a biological
“shock absorber.” With whole-body vibration exposure, early
studies cited by Wasserman identified effects such as increased
rates of “venous, bowel, respiratory, muscular and back disor-
ders,” plus the “combined effects of forced body posture, cargo
handling, improper eating and whole-body vibration were
factors contributing to back pain, spinal deformities, sprains,
strains and hemorrhoid disorders.
Not long after I took the course, an issue arose in the ingot
plant where certain operators were becoming nauseous. This
was around the same time carbon monoxide poisoning stories
were becoming prevalent in the news media. At one point,
someone in the facility called in the Indiana Occupational
Safety and Health Administration, which shut down part of
the department, tented it off and conducted extensive air sam-
pling with no conclusive evidence of air quality issues caused
by CO or anything else.
The operation in question was one in which about 1 billion
recycled aluminum cans per year were crushed, delacquered
(coatings burned off,) steel washers removed by overhead
magnets, lead fishing weights removed by a mesh shaking
conveyor and the aluminum remelted and cast, along with the
virgin metal, into 35,000-pound ingots.
Once it was determined air quality was not an issue, I
brought up the possibility of exposure to whole-body vibra-
tion from the shaking conveyor that removes nonaluminum
detritus recycling-minded people placed into cans to increase
their weight and payout.
The affected employees were monitoring the delacquering
process by watching a video feed in a booth near the shaking
conveyor. Since air quality wasnt an issue, site management
was at a loss, and the operation was literally on shaky ground.
Taking my advice, engineers in the department brought in an
outside consultant to test whole-body vibration exposure. It
determined the operators booth was literally “galloping” in
place, and that it was not CO poisoning but rather vibration
that made operators sick.
The same thing happens on a particularly turbulent aircraft
ride or by operating a truck or piece of heavy equipment for
extended periods. When the frequency and acceleration of
the body intersect at a specific point, the health and safety of
an individual may be at stake with exposure over time. High
amounts of vibration can be tolerated for short periods, and
low amounts of vibration can be tolerated longer. The aircraft
example would likely present itself in the form of an “engaged
sick bag”; however these situations are rare. Often, to coun-
teract short-term exposure to whole-body vibration, the best
thing to do is to tense the abdominal muscles. Unfortunately,
in an industrial environment, tensing the abs for an entire
work shift wont suffice.
To solve the issue, operators were moved to a booth in a dif-
ferent area and the monitor feeds and machine controls were
moved. This relatively simple improvement addressed the vi-
bration exposure; the problem was solved and operations re-
sumed. Long term, the issues most likely related to improper
Federal safety agency to
upgrade its standards
Growing concerns about health, safety and an aging demographic
in the U.S. workforce has led NIOSH to update its research
and service goals recently for the next four years. The effort
directly addresses issues with more older workers employed
and many employees facing longer hours or compressed work
schedules. Two of the seven chosen goals are directly linked to
ergonomics issues. Under the header, “Reducing Occupational
Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSDs),” NIOSH recommends the
In the agriculture, forestry and fishing industries, develop a
better understanding of the impact of vibration and repetitive
motion exposures.
In manufacturing, construction and trade industries, study
the impact of workers using robots and exoskeletons.
In healthcare, evaluate the effectiveness of interventions
aimed to reduce MSDs.
• In mining, better identify risk factors for MSD development.
Among service industry jobs, increase the understanding of
risks for back injuries.
In wholesale and retail trade, improve ability to reduce MSDs
among older employees.
NIOSH will fund much of the research required to examine
these issues. More details can be found at https://link.iise.org/
March 2019 | ISE Magazine 31
isolation of the conveyor, which would necessarily affect the
long-term reliability and life of the equipment.
Trust, encourage and avoid paralysis
of analysis
The last two facility examples exemplify what I struggled at
the time to accept as successes, but which probably would not
have happened had the incident with JYD not ultimately gone
As a newly minted ergonomist, I needed to be involved
with every improvement. But in retrospect, these next two
examples showed that the skills and concepts I had been teach-
ing and coaching to facility employees were not only being
absorbed and implemented but were changing the safety cul-
ture and empowering front-line employees and supervisors to
make simple, effective improvements.
The first project was in the roll shop. Traditionally, em-
ployees placed on the floor the various components needed
to change the giant rolls used to turn 35,000-pound ingots
into the aluminum for beverage containers, then bent over
and lifted the parts as needed. The employees asked me to
periodically consult with them on their new “roll cart” design,
which looked like a skeleton with steel rods sticking out of a
central spine.
We know much more now about forward bending pos-
tures than we knew then. Around 2003, Ohio State con-
ducted research using “fresh frozen cadaver spines” in a
flexion (forward-bending) study. The results showed that
bending forward 45 degrees or more creates about a 20- to
50-time greater risk for a back injury than from standing in
an upright posture (“Dissertation, Effects of Torso Flexion
on Fatigue Failure of the Human Lumbosacral Spine,” Sean
Gallagher, 2003.) The researchers’ definition of a “back in-
jury” was about a one-centimeter shift between the spinal
vertebrae and a disc.
The roll shop cart was ahead of its time. This simple cart
created in 1993 allowed parts to be kept and presented about
waist height, eliminating most forward bending by no longer
placing items on the floor. This was a successful and simple
project and featured in a facility newspaper article (see image
on page 28), which also discussed some of the improvements
being made to hand tools.
The other employee-led project was in the potrooms. One
regular task was to use a jackhammer to remove excess insu-
lation “crust” off nearly used-up anodes. When I arrived, I
started widescale training to discuss various risk factors, in-
cluding vibration. With the anodes, employees had to contend
with heat and fumes. The carbon anodes were just removed
from smelting pots at around 900 degrees Celsius and were
emitting fumes that were no longer captured by the massive
ventilation system. We had three issues: a potential air quality
issue with the fumes, heat stress and vibration. At this point,
given the work technique and the size of the jackhammers, it
was both hand-arm and whole-body vibration.
Not long before I left to work for Zurich Services Corp.,
one of the many potroom supervisors asked me to meet him in
the department so he could show me a prototype they want-
ed to try. On their own, potroom employees had attached a
jackhammer to a Bobcat-style tractor and used its hydraulics
to operate the hammer. This new arrangement better sepa-
rated employees from the direct radiant heat and fumes and
transferred most of the vibration from the human body to the
tractor body. Employees discovered they could clean the an-
odes almost immediately after removal from the pots. This
meant they could more effectively remove the crust, which
saved more of the anode carbon. This reduced material costs,
as the cleaned anodes were then crushed and recycled into new
Granted, employees still had some vibration exposure,
which was not going to go away. However, the success did not
require massive amounts of analysis. We knew the closer you
were to the source, the worse the vibration.
By teaching employees not “what to do,” but rather “this is
our goal,” it allowed them to start developing these simple yet
effective solutions. When we intrinsically “know” something
is an issue, do we trust our gut or second-guess ourselves? Do
we try prototypes? Do we throw our hands into the air and
give up in failure when a prototype does not work? Or do we
try again? Obviously, we do not want to throw our hands into
the air in failure to achieve a “perfect” improvement, but I do
encounter this situation on a regular basis.
The tools and skill sets I developed and shared at Alcoa in-
cluded setting up a simple decision matrix to force-rank pos-
sible solutions, teaching top-notch engineers on-site that it was
OK not to solve 100 percent of the problem, and that “baby
steps,” including trial and error, were still better than no steps.
I also spent a good amount of time teaching my colleagues
it was critical to get beyond the “paralysis of ergonomics anal-
ysis” many organizations still suffer from, as I encountered
at Alcoa. Yes, analysis is important, but I find it critical that
analysis does us no good if clients, internal and external, be-
come confused and are unable to select improvements that im-
prove their quality, productivity, performance and, ultimately,
profitability. These are the concepts and skills I have shared
with clients for my entire ergonomics career over more than a
Timothy (Tim) Pottorff is a certied industrial ergonomist with bach-
elors and masters degrees in industrial engineering, plus the Associate
in Risk Management (ARM) designation. He is an IISE member,
speaks regularly at ergonomics and safety conferences, authors numerous
articles and is founder and principal at QP3 ErgoSystems, a full-service
risk consulting firm. In 2018 he invented Ergo Tuck, a bedmaking tool
that helps housekeepers make beds easier and safer.