Simply Safer: Designing Workstations to Fit the Worker

May 10, 2021

Sometimes, keeping workers safe on the job is as simple as providing a light or a step; other times, it requires innovations like exoskeletons and “cobots” (collaborative robots). But the only way to know exactly what workers need to avoid accidents and injuries is to ask — and more importantly, listen to their feedback. 

That’s exactly what a Caterpillar France team did in their quest to improve ergonomics in the manufacturing environment, and the changes they’ve made as a result have reduced risk for 80 tasks, such as assembly, screwing, tightening and handling loads,  at approximately 100 different workstations across two facilities.  

Risky business 

The Caterpillar France Ergonomics Excellence project got its start in 2016, driven primarily by Caterpillar’s “Safely Home. Everyone. Every Day.” slogan. Guidance from French health authorities to reduce work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), estimated to cost the government an average of $105,000 per incident, also played a role. 

Led by Caterpillar France’s Environmental, Health and Safety (EHS) group, the team included manufacturing engineers and technicians, an ergonomics consultant and a company physician. They developed a methodology to evaluate the ergonomics of each workstation based on four factors: biomechanics, work environment, mental load and operator feedback. 

The team then analyzed the results to determine risk levels — low, medium or high — associated with each workstation, identified potential solutions and costs, and made addressing situations identified as higher risk the top priority. 

Starting simple, thinking bigger

Some of the biggest improvements identified by the Ergonomics Excellence team required only the smallest effort — and minimal cost investment.

Ergonomic Workstation
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Ergonomic Workstation

Operators working underneath a wheel loader sub-hood, for example, didn’t have enough light and risked banging heads and arms against the structure. Now, they wear lightweight headlamps to illuminate the space. Other employees had to access parts of the sub-hood more than 7.5 feet (2.3 meters) in the air, requiring excessive reaching or standing on unstable surfaces. Adding a small step to the workstation eliminated both hazards.

Other situations identified as higher risk called for more innovative thinking. At the sub-hood assembly workstation, operators spent a lot of time working with their arms above their heads,— resulting in neck, back, shoulder and elbow pains. The solution? Exoskeletons, metal frames fitted with motorized “muscles” that workers can wear to carry out tasks safely and with less physical effort.

The Ergonomics Excellence team worked with suppliers to develop exoskeleton concepts, then had operators test and validate the designs. Based on their feedback, Caterpillar France has since purchased three exoskeletons, with plans to deploy more on other workstations soon. Also in the testing phase: a “cobot” designed to help hood assembly operators safely handle tasks that can’t be fully automated.

According to Christian Arnaud, operations manager at the Grenoble facility, “this ergonomic equipment has improved the safety and the productivity of operators, reducing the arduousness of the task of wheel loader sub hood assembly.”

For more on Caterpillar’s safety efforts, take a look at our Sustainability Report.