Thursday, June 24, 2004

Ergonomics Transformation in Notoriously Painful Industry

During the never-ending ergonomics debates, industry representatives delight in explaining how ergonomics success stories are just that -- just anecdotal stories signifying nothing.

The Sacramento Bee has yet another story (check here for previous story) about a group of garment factory workers and organizations in Oakland and Los Angeles that are proving the industry flaks wrong. Relatively simple and inexpensive interventions such as better factory chairs can not only relieve workers' knee, hand and foot pain, but "can achieve productivity gains by improving working conditions -sometimes as much as 20 percent"
The factories employ more than 140,000 people, most of them Chinese women in Northern California and Latina women in Southern California.

They complain of similar aches, pains and injuries: aching shoulders, backs and arms; pinched nerves; repetitive stress injuries to elbows, wrists and hands; and strained or even torn vertebral disks that may not heal, according to Ira Janowitz, an ergonomics expert with the University of California system.

Inside the crowded, narrow KC Sewing shop, about 30 women assemble designer evening gowns from piles of pink chiffon and black satin. Over the whir of sewing machines, Chinese opera music pours from mounted speakers.

Before workstations were transformed and metal chairs replaced, Lin said, her body ached almost constantly. After spending her days hunched over a sewing machine, sometimes she could barely lift her neck.

"It's like a pain inside the bone, every single bone," she said, speaking in Cantonese through a translator.
The University of California at San Francisco, the Asian Immigrant Women Advocates in Oakland, the California Department of Health Services and the University of California's Ergonomics Program formed a coalition to introduce modern ergonomic standards to garment shops. They began in the San Francisco bay area with federal, state and local funding, and inspired the US Centers for Disease Control to fund a similar program to replicate the study in an $850,000 project in 10 Los Angeles County garment shops.
Ergonomic experts descended on the three test shops - hammering extensions onto sewing tables, building footrests, padding the knee pedals used throughout the day, tilting the tables, pasting down a sticky surface to keep cloth from sliding, brightening the lighting, and making other small but significant changes.

The crowning enhancement was the padded, adjustable chair designed like one used by cello players, who also work in a forward-bending position.

The workers loved the upgrades, which cost about $250 per workstation. "They noticed the improvements within a week," said Kam Lin Chao, one of the owners of KC Sewing.

The ergonomics team estimated that nearly half the workers in the test shops reported that their neck, shoulder and back pains were gone, according to a 2002 study of the project. Almost all workers with knee, hand or foot pain reported it was gone or substantially reduced.
Just think. If we had an ergonomics standard, this story would be so normal that the press would be bored with it by now.