Ergonomics meets munitions--keeping workers safe

By Jane Gervasoni, Public Affairs Office, U.S. Army Public Health CommandApril 14, 2014

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A quality work environment is a collaborative effort to keep workers safe and healthy. In a facility like the Anniston (Ala.) Munitions Center, many factors influence the work environment and can be modified to improve worker well-being.

U.S. Army Public Health Command ergonomists went to Anniston, Ala., in January to survey facilities, evaluate work processes and provide training to local industrial hygienists and safety personnel--all to help enhance the working environment at the facility.

By looking at the tools; physical activities, such as bending or lifting, that affect the body; and environmental factors such as noise and lighting that might affect hearing, vision or comfort, ergonomists can suggest modifications that enhance worker health.

While John Pentikis, USAPHC Army Institute of Public Health ergonomist and team leader taught ergonomics principles to the industrial hygienists and safety office personnel, ergonomists Kevin Purcell, AIPH, and Tricia Salzar, Public Health Command Region--South, assessed industrial and administrative areas around the munitions center.

"These types of missions help installation personnel learn the ergonomic principles needed to run their own basic program at the installation level," explained Pentikis. "By combining assessments with training, the installation gets a chance to see how we (ergonomists) go through a facility reviewing processes and determining areas of concern."

"It was great that I was able to be part of this assessment since the facility is located in my area of responsibility," said Salzar. "I began to develop a relationship with the individuals at the installation, which helps them feel more comfortable asking questions and getting help when needed," she said. "They also know they can call me for assistance as they develop their local ergonomics program."

A worksite assessment provides the "ergonomic big picture" of the workplace and is an integral part of an installation's ergonomics program, according to Purcell. An assessment involves observations and discussions with supervisors and employees to determine the types of work done in the facility and any specific concerns they may have.

"In the case of Anniston," said Purcell, "we looked at a wide range of facilities including offices, inventory buildings, inspection areas, receiving and shipping facilities, a wood shop and unpacking areas."

Each area offers unique ergonomic challenges to employees and opportunities to recommend improvements.

Much of the work done at Anniston involves unpacking, moving and disposing of unused and outdated military shells, rockets, missiles and similar explosive material. Because of the concerns about static electricity, grounded metal plates are placed in work areas, according to Purcell. The metal plates create a hard work surface, in turn creating an ergonomic hazard that needs to be mitigated.

"One of our suggestions was to replace the metal plates with grounded rubber mats so that workers would not have to stand on the unyielding metal plates," he explained. "The use of anti-fatigue mats would be a less expensive, 'quick fix' for those who stand in place much of the day."

"I think these types of quick fixes go a long way towards fostering support for larger more expensive projects. In addition, by modifying a small portion of the task we can hopefully reduce the stress and strain on the employee, which in turn usually makes them wonderful advocates for ergonomics," explained Salzar.

"We make suggestions to make the workplace fit the worker," said Purcell. "We talk with the people who do the work to get an understanding of how they do their work."

Much of the work at Anniston begins at the loading docks. Containers of materiel to be destroyed are shipped in Army trailers that have rollers, but Purcell noted that the loading docks were at a bad angle that did not facilitate easy loading and off-loading of the trucks.

The ergonomic team's suggestions for improvement included pouring a new concrete pad to better facilitate loading and unloading and the use of a winch on a fork lift instead of manually pulling heavy containers from the trucks.

Workers had their own suggestions to improve other processes. They included putting wheels on tables used to move rockets and other large projectiles and the fabrication of special stands that are sized to fit their jobs.

"Ergonomics, safety and good business practices overlap when we look at the processes at an installation," said Purcell. "Most of the time they all go hand-in-hand to protect the workers and increase production.

"We were very impressed with the ingenuity of the workers in the facilities who had modified equipment or the environment to make their work easier and safer," said Purcell. "When we complimented their changes, we explained how they had applied ergonomic principles to their work environment."

"We left the munitions center having provided ergonomic training to both management and line-workers as well as information on how to establish their own ergonomics program," according to Pentikis.

"The ergonomic training was very informative for the industrial hygiene, safety and others who attended," said Anthony Burdell, deputy to the commander at Anniston.

"During the ergonomic survey the auditors also provided ergonomic information to our workforce to include how office equipment should be set up for each individual," according to Burdell. "They also instructed ANMC team members how to get ergonomic information from the Public Health Command Web site. The visit was very beneficial for the ANMC Team."

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