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Ergonomics Success Story | Think Ergonomics

Angel Wings at 3 Storeys | An Ergonomics Success Story

26 Apr 2016 Katrina James

Angel wings are what I refer to as the bony part of the shoulder blade – as a little girl the angel wings came into (imaginary) action when my bent elbows moved towards my back and outwards a bit. In more mature years I also knew this as chicken wings as in performing the “chicken dance.”

The angel wing position can place undue pressure on the rotator cuff of the shoulder – a part of the body commonly discussed in reference to rugby league and AFL players. The shoulder is a flexible movable joint that allows us to wave to our friends, brush our hair and scratch our backs. Unfortunately we ask the shoulder to do lots of other things too.

For some workers in their daily work, the angel wing position is imposed upon them to operate controls driving a crane or heavy mobile equipment. No dancing or imaginary angels here. Having the arms in this position over periods of time can result in long term discomfort, pain and injury.

Jim suffered such an injury. I received a call from Jim’s manager Bob one day.

“Jim is back at work, and he can do most things, but the medical report says he can’t drive crane A. If he can’t drive crane A – I can’t keep him in the job. Is there anything I can do to get Jim on the crane without injuring him, so he can keep his job?”

After treatment, surgery and rest Jim was fit to do most things – except place his right arm and shoulder in the angel wing position. At 48 years of age, and as an experienced overhead crane driver this could mean that he may be out of a job. It also meant that having arms and shoulders in that position was placing other crane drivers (up to 40 at the time) at risk of discomfort, pain and potential injury. Either of the scenarios meant serious consequence including economic loss for people and business.

I knew the controls were about 30 years old, and they may be able to be altered, but I did not know what would work.

I also knew that the manager was on a tight budget, and the problem would need to be resolved with minimum downtime.

Before doing anything I wanted to observe different drivers on each of the 4 shift teams shift operating the crane.

There is not much space in a crane cabin cabin, but I was able to invite a maintenance engineer to assist me determine how frequently controls were operated and how far the controls were apart, while I observed how far the driver had to reach in front and beside or behind them. I was also interested in how the drivers were able to best position themselves to reach controls using the adjustable seat, use the mounted stock control screen, and observe the movements they were making lifting slabs of steel all while making sure they were “comfortable” and operating safely for the time they were 3 stories in the air.

In my experience people are mostly proud of what they do and love to talk about their work, so asking the crane drivers about how they operate the crane, their likes and dislikes on the set up and their suggestions, was the easy bit.

To get a calibration on my thinking on the potential changes to the controls I had the Occupational Therapist who had managed Jim’s return to work program to also have a look at the crane and put her thoughts to the team.

I put the information together and with some discussion with the crane maintenance engineers we came up with some alternatives on the position of the control boxes and the controllers. But – how to make changes on a working crane and test them?

In a briefing meeting, I put to the maintenance engineer that he use “spares” to make a mock up model – a full life size replica of the current cabin with the suggested changes. This took some convincing – in fact the thought crossed my mind that he considered I was a bit crazy – he had never done something like that before – he fixed things. He called me within 24 hours very excited – he had put a model together in the training room.

Bob printed off A1 photos and drawings of the proposed changes so that the drivers could mark up their comments.

Bob then moved into gear and made sure that the supervisors engaged each crane driver on shift to sit in the model and offer their opinion. Bob and I were there often to observe, and answer any questions. Within 2 weeks we had an answer – completely different from what we had initially suggested. The drivers were good to go with the changes, that offered to make a huge ergonomic improvement.

The maintenance engineers went into gear and with minimum cost and downtime made the changes.

Bob was extremely happy – Jim was fully able to meet the requirements of the job, the other drivers were more comfortable, and at less risk of injury, and it didn’t break the schedule or budget.

The key insight to this was that the people that do the job know the solution given the right support and guidance.

Bob’s leadership in caring for people and the maintenance engineer being open to new ways of doing things was key.

“It was a brave exercise. It cost me next to nothing, saved Jims job, and at least 5 other drivers who had previous injuries”. Bob, Manager

Bob was also confident that the renewed ergonomics would prevent any future injuries.

Technical ergonomic guidance is critical to ensuring that the right decisions are made and that one problem is not replaced with another. As an ergonomist I am able to provide the technical data, and facilitate and guide the manager, employees and his technical engineering team along a path to a solution that provides the best outcomes for all the parties involved.

Thinking about the ergonomics and having an expert apply it in a practical manner can make a difference to your business bottom line. This can be a considerable reduction to your business workers compensation costs (including medical and wages costs), loss of productivity and the enormous personal impact on a man who loses his capacity to work.

For this team “angel wings” are now not something that will cause them discomfort, pain and injury while they continue to provide a high level of productivity to the business. Now that’s something to do the chicken dance about!

(names have been changed)

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