One on One:

An Ergonomics Guideline Furnituremakers Can Use

Gary Barger, corporate safety director of Broyhill Furniture Industries Inc., discusses the objectives of the American Furniture Manufacturers Assn.’s new voluntary ergonomics guideline.

By Susan Lorimor

The American Furniture Manufacturers Assn. released the nation’s first industry-specific, voluntary ergonomics guideline in September. The guideline’s creators say it is a far cry from the non-specific standards the Occupational Safety & Health Administration tried to put in place in the final weeks of the Clinton Administration 2-1/2 years ago. Those would have forced the same set of rules on furnituremakers, meat packers, garbage collectors, baggage handlers and other occupations. Shortly after George W. Bush took office in 2001, Congress overturned the proposed standards.

Last year, AFMA announced it had partnered with the North Carolina Department of Commerce and OSHA to develop a voluntary guideline. John L. Henshaw, assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, says it was the first such alliance.

“North Carolina is a leader in workplace safety and health issues and endorses OSHA’s four-pronged approach to ergonomics,” Henshaw says. “Furniture manufacturers, their employees and their families, throughout the country, can benefit from the collective experience of the alliance participants. I believe their example serves as an outstanding model for other states interested in reducing ergonomic-related injuries.”

     
 
Before: Two operators lifted the table top and flipped it 180 degrees for the installation of hardware. Sometimes the table top was flipped again for finishing activities. Source: AFMA Voluntary Ergonomics Guideline  
     

AFMA spokespersons say the organization was selected to create the guideline because of the industry’s low injury and illness rates and the association’s leadership on health and safety issues. The U.S. Department of Labor says nationwide in 2001, the wood household furniture industry reported about 9,600 cases of musculoskeletal injuries. In the upholstered furniture industry, about 7,000 were reported.

Over the past several years, Dr. Gary Mirka, professor of biomechanics at North Carolina State University, has worked with the furniture industry on improving ergonomics in the workplace. He has done studies in plants to assess the ways people do their jobs, and has helped companies come up with “best practices,” or ways to perform duties that are more ergonomically sound. A key component of the AFMA guideline is a list of best practices, complete with photos, that show the best ways to use an adjustable height arm jig, and other material handling equipment.

Since the guideline’s presentation at an AFMA conference in South Carolina, AFMA’s director of environmental, safety and human resources, Bill Perdue has been contacted by various industry groups for more information. He says he gave a presentation about the ergonomic guideline to the Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Assn.

Perdue says the guideline is the result of hours of hard work and dedication from AFMA members. Representatives from Bernhardt Furniture Co., Broyhill Furniture, Henredon, La-Z-Boy, Pulaski Furniture and Thomasville Furniture Industries met throughout the year to work on the project. He also says the association has been guaranteed the guideline will not be used by the government as a compliance document.

     
 
After: The new system uses a vacuum-based suction system to grab the table top. The table top is flipped using a bar suspended from an overhead hoist system. Estimated Cost to Purchase or Manufacture: Manufacture for $5,500 per station.  
     

Gary Barger, corporate safety director for Broyhill, worked with the group on the project. He answers Wood & Wood Products’ questions about the new guideline:

 

Why did the furniture industry develop the voluntary ergonomics guideline? Why now?

The sharing of ideas was a primary focus for developing the voluntary ergonomics guideline for the furniture industry. I see the voluntary ergonomics guideline and repository on the AFMA Web site as a continued way of sharing “ergonomic best practices” within our industry.

The North Carolina Department of Labor approached the AFMA Safety Committee with a proposal for a joint effort to produce a voluntary ergonomics guideline. The Department of Labor realizes that the furniture industry has been involved in developing and implementing ergonomic interventions in furniture companies. These improvements had not been widely shared in our industry. The most effective sharing of these ergonomic best practices would be through a voluntary guideline.

 

Are most of the key best practices already in use by a majority of furnituremakers? What are they? Are there any that will require implementation by a significant portion of the industry?

I think the voluntary ergonomics guideline is an effective way of sharing the best ergonomic practices in the furniture industry. Furniture companies, who are members of the AFMA, were asked to submit ergonomic best practices to the workgroup on the voluntary guideline. Many of the ergonomic best practices submitted to the workgroup are included in the guideline. The best practices are a combination of ergonomic interventions (engineering controls), assessment forms, questionnaires, checklists and other forms which are in use in furniture companies. We hope that companies will continue to submit their ergonomic best practices. Additional best practices can be accessed through the AFMA Web site (www.afma4u.org).

The AFMA has been proactive in getting information out to the furniture industry about ergonomics through workshops and in the “Manual Material Handling” video in the “AFMA Safeway Series.” Furniture companies who were not able to take advantage of these training opportunities can now benefit from the guideline and gain insight into ergonomic issues that they may be facing.

I do feel that there are some key ergonomic best practices in use in many of the furniture companies. Furniture machine trade shows and industrial equipment sales personnel have presented furniture companies with the use of scissor lifts, conveyors and tools to improve ergonomics in factories. There is no intended requirement for implementation of a specific best practice by the industry. However, if a furniture company has an ergonomic issue that is addressed in the voluntary ergonomics guideline, the company would now have the opportunity to try something it knows has already been successfully used in another furniture company.

 

We assume your committee versed itself on OSHA’s 2001 standards, which were thrown out when George W. Bush came into office. What is the biggest difference between the voluntary guideline and those OSHA standards?

The primary difference between the voluntary ergonomics guideline and an ergonomics standard would be to encourage furniture companies to make ergonomic improvements, not because of the threat of enforcement, but rather due to examples of types of ergonomic interventions that have worked for others in the industry. The federal ergonomic standards appeared to have a reactionary approach to ergonomic problems or musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). Under the proposed standard, once an MSD was reported or an “action trigger” was reached, companies would have been required to implement an ergonomics program. The strength of the voluntary guideline is the sharing and implementation of the best industry practices.

 

Are there any similarities between the former standards and the voluntary guideline?

The purpose of an ergonomics standard and the voluntary guideline is very similar — they are both intended to prevent musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) in the workplace. One important similarity is the need to have early reporting of pain from ergonomic stressors in the workplace. Another similarity is a need for commitment from management and training of employees to be aware of ergonomic risks in the workplace.

 

After beginning work on the guideline, on which specific areas did the committee discover the furniture manufacturing industry needed to focus?

There are some areas where ergonomic stressors are more prevalent in the furniture industry and these became a focus in the “best practices” of the guidelines. The committee recognized the amount of lifting and bending in furniture plants, as well as repetitive motions from the use of tools, could contribute to ergonomic stress. Many of the “best practices” address these areas.

 

By virtue of being part of the process that formed the guideline, are there things you learned and were able to bring back to Broyhill?

Being part of the process gave me an excellent opportunity to learn from other safety professionals. I have gained a stronger understanding of areas where ergonomic research and interventions have been conducted and proven effective. These can be used at Broyhill. One example would be the use of spring scissor lift mechanisms to reduce employee bending while lifting stock or rolls of fabric.

These guidelines are a tool for the furniture industry safety person, much like what a pattern is to a furniture craftsman.

 

What type of workshops have you led at Broyhill for the employees? Specifically, what did they address?

It is an ongoing process of training at Broyhill. We feel it is vital to employee safety and quality. Workshops were recently conducted addressing the new AFMA voluntary ergonomics guideline with supervisors and we are in the process of conducting workshops for safety committees in each plant. Ergonomic interventions, from the CD enclosed in the guideline, were incorporated into (Microsoft) PowerPoint and shared in the workshops. These were new workshops just to introduce the guideline.

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