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Applying ergonomics in postpress operations

Oct 1, 2001 12:00 AM

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A discussion about safety in the printing industry is remiss without a look at ergonomic considerations, as the two are inextricably linked. By definition, ergonomics is an applied science concerned with designing and arranging objects or equipment with the physical and psychological health of users in mind.

Ergonomics has recently become an industry buzzword, mainly because of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) proposed ergonomics standard, which was halted by Congress (see “Ergo standard halted — for now,” p. 32). Although this type of legislation will probably not resurface for at least a few years, the industry should still strive for ergonomically sound working environments. Such considerations are paramount not only for avoiding personal injury and the associated costs and disruptions, but also for improved productivity.


According to a 1993-2000 study by Daniels & Henry Agency (St. Louis), based on printing firms in the MoPrint Workers Compensation Trust (see Table 1, p. 26), the most frequent injury that leads to workers' compensation payments is strain or injury by lifting. For printers, these injuries usually occur in postpress operations. The second most frequent injury is reportedly caused by repetitive motion.

Both types of injuries can be prevented if workers are trained how to best move their bodies, and if equipment is available to assist in heavy lifting and to reduce bodily strain.

According to Gary Jones, manager of environmental health and safety affairs for GATF (Sewickley, PA), there are seven basic risk factors that can lead to ergonomic injury:

  • awkward posture
  • force
  • repetition
  • psychological impact of environment
  • contact stress
  • vibration
  • personal attributes (height, weight, age, etc.)

Keeping in mind these factors, Jones says printers should assess the ergonomics of their workspaces, and generate solutions for problem areas. “Ask questions like, ‘Can we get adjustable equipment? Can we change the job motions themselves?’” suggests Jones.

Along with Jim Kyger, director of human relations for PIA (Alexandria, VA), Jones co-authored a 24-page guide to ergonomics for printers before the OSHA standard was derailed. The guide, “OSHA's Ergonomics Standard: An Initial Compliance Package for Printers,” provides examples of best practices for instituting an ergonomics program. It advises employers to establish an employee reporting and response system for musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), provide background training on ergonomic issues and present each employee with information on MSDs.

Jones mentions a large direct-mail provider/specialty printer that performed a self-evaluation of employee movement in the bindery, and based on its findings, made changes in how certain tasks are performed. The company found that if employees decreased the number of sheets they grasped in each manual transfer, their wrist strain was reduced significantly. The company advised employees not to pinch more than an inch.” Management was also pleased to discover that grasping fewer sheets did not decrease overall productivity.

The printer also realized that employees could reduce the number of times they vertically and horizontally strike sheets after jogging, because the machinery can tolerate product that isn't perfectly stacked. Employees were advised to hit each side of a stack only once or twice. Although it seems like a minor adjustment, after multiplying those extra movements by their daily, weekly, monthly and yearly frequency, the resulting motion reduction is significant.

“The bindery is pretty labor-intensive, even with ergonomic accommodations,” acknowledges Andy Johnson, vice president and general manager of Banta Publications Group. At Banta's Kansas City, KS, plant, some bindery employees rotate positions each hour, so they can use different muscle groups and hopefully prevent a repetitive motion injury. The rotations also serve another purpose: Employees are cross-trained and can fulfill the duties of more than one position.


Printers seeking guidance in determining where and how to make ergonomic improvements in their operations have several options, including:


Many printers have already wrangled with ergonomic issues and are willing to share information about their solutions. Jones and GATF have a list of companies that will discuss their ergonomic efforts with fellow printers, and PIA sponsors a safety listserv where interested parties can post questions.

Jones also suggests finding ergonomically involved companies through networking and word-of-mouth. Typically, large shops have learned about ergonomics from experts who conduct on-site evaluations, or have a part-time or full-time ergonomist on staff.


Many insurance providers perform ergonomic audits as a risk-control measure: Typically, audited businesses file fewer insurance claims. Liberty Mutual Group (Boston), a writer of workers' compensation insurance and provider of safety, health and ergonomic consulting, points to a client that reduced material-handling and repeated-trauma injuries by more than 40 percent from year to year. The company worked with Liberty Mutual to implement an ergonomics program.

Liberty Mutual's engineering solutions group conducts ergonomic analyses of programs and facilities, provides customized workshops in ergonomics and offers literature and research data to clients. Its consultants are certified by the Board of Certification in professional ergonomics (CPE), industrial hygiene (CIH), occupational health nursing (COHN) and safety (CSP).


The government agency funds a consultation service that performs free workplace assessments for interested companies nationwide. Targeted for smaller businesses, the program is separate from the OSHA inspection effort: The assigned consultant studies your entire workplace, or the specific operations you designate, and discusses the applicable OSHA standards. He or she issues no citations and imposes no penalties.

There are, however, some strings attached to the consultation. The audit report must be shown to all employees and the company must make any suggested improvements within a certain time frame. If a consultant finds an “imminent danger” situation during the walk-through, and the company does not implement the recommended alterations within the specified time frame, the case is referred to OSHA, which can then take action against the company. (OSHA insists that these occurrences are rare.)


Consultants can be invaluable for printers investigating ergonomics for the first time. They can offer an objective view of a plant's ergonomic situation.

“We know what we're going to see before we set foot in the facility,” says Colton Young, vice president of Compliance Management International (Montgomeryville, PA), a consulting firm that specializes in the printing and packaging industries. “We draw on the wealth of knowledge acquired from working with 300-plus printers in the past.” The company offers a variety of assessment and training services that are customized to fit each client's needs.

Hiring a consultant can be expensive (estimates range from $1,500 a day up to $5,000 for a full assessment and report, depending on shop size and services contracted), but the final report does remain private between management and the consultancy. Consequently, there is zero risk of government penalization.


Printers hoping to improve their facilities' ergonomics can also get help from equipment vendors. There are inexpensive items, such as anti-fatigue mats or adjustable chairs, that can greatly increase employees' physical comfort

Interthor, Inc. (Broadview, IL) manufactures container tilters, high-lift pallet trucks, hand pallet trucks, stackers and trans-positioners that handle heavy lifting and transporting for many applications. Its Thork-Lift, for example, can rise to a height of 36 inches, eliminating strenuous back bending. It is available in manual or electric versions, and in models for handling skids or pallets.

Richard Kopacz, general manager of Interthor, notes that the products are priced to appeal to virtually any operation: The lifts, stackers and tilters are used in three-employee shops and billion-dollar printing operations.

Manufacturers of cutters, stitchers and other postpress equipment have made great strides in developing ergonomically friendly products. Although automation has certainly reduced the physical demands of some bindery positions, most printers have embraced automation because it increases efficiency.

Jeff Marr, Colter & Peterson (Paterson, NJ) vice president of sales, points out that a cutter is the only piece of bindery equipment without an automatic feeder or delivery. Colter & Peterson offers a full line of products for lifting, jogging, aligning, buffering and unloading, as well as air tables and pile turners, which more fully automate cutting and reduce physical exertion. “Printers and binders need equipment that makes it easier for operators to do their jobs,” Marr insists.


At Print 01, Heidelberg (Kennesaw, GA) demonstrated the Polar System 6, a modular, high-speed cutter system that can be outfitted with a stack lift, an automatic jogger, a piling-board shelf, a gripper loading system, a Transomat unloader, an automatic blowing and fanning device, a piling-board buffer, an autotrim waste remover and a gripper turning system. A complete system costs about $200,000.

Rob Kuehl, marketing director of Polar cutting systems at Heidelberg, acknowledges that this is a hefty upfront investment and it isn't necessarily appropriate for printers with less than $5 million in annual revenues, or for printers that deal primarily with smaller sheet sizes. For printers working with larger sheets and higher volume, Kuehl argues that the hourly cost to operate a fully automated system is only a few dollars more than the cost of running a standalone cutter. And, the Polar System 6's automated features save operators from heavy lifting and much of the repetitive motion associated with running a cutter.

Felix Stirnimann, division manager of print finishing for Müller Martini (Hauppauge, NY), says that ergonomic considerations are a priority for the company's industrial designers and engineers. He believes this is evident on the Optima saddlestitcher, which the company showcased at Print 01.

The Optima has decentralized control units, with function buttons placed throughout the machine. These are available on the feeder itself, so the operator does not have to walk back and forth to the main control. Users can also advance the chain back and forth to precisely position the product while the machine is running.

Baumann Maschinenbau (Solms, Germany), a long-term partner of MAN Roland (Westmont, IL), recently released the BSW 3 Mobile, a mobile pile turner with a 2,200-lb. carrying capacity and a maximum fork opening of 52.4 inches. The company also offers stainless-steel and Formica airflow tables for any machine, in virtually any size.

At Print 01, MAN Roland displayed a Cut-tec 137 with ASE automatic waste disposal, jogger, gripper transport system and an unloader, which is reportedly one of the most productive systems on the market.

Quad/Tech International's (QTI) (Sussex, WI) vertical signature loader (VSL), formerly known as the Bomac, eliminates the need for hand-feeding signatures, which can cause wrist strain. Users can load up to 48 inches of product at an adjustable height. The VSL shuffles sheets so they don't stick together during collation.

Dave Christofferson, QTI manager of finishing engineering, says the VSL's main advantages include reduced bending and repetitive motion, and consistency through automation. QTI also offers horizontal signature loaders (HSLs), palletizers, stackers and bundler/stackers that can ease the physical demands of the bindery.

Although automation and high-end equipment can enhance the ergonomics of postpress operations, that doesn't mean employees will use them.

“The real challenge is to find solutions that are easy to implement that operators will use,” says Don Piontek, principal of Finishing Resources (Eden Prairie, MN), a postpress consultancy. “I've seen tons of automated devices go into the bindery in the name of ergonomics and were only used for about two weeks. The solution can't be too complex or costly.”

Ergo standard halted — for now

In March 2001, Congress voted to halt the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) proposed Ergonomics Program Standard, which sought to reduce the number of workplace musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).

Even though the Ergonomics Program Standard was defeated, employers are not entirely off the hook. There is an effort by some in Congress to get OSHA to implement a new standard within the next two years. Wendy Lechner, senior director of federal employment policy at PIA (Alexandria, VA), estimates there is a 50 percent chance that a new standard could be passed into legislation.

In the meantime, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao is gathering input to determine the best approach to reduce MSDs in the workplace, whether it be through enacting a new ergonomics standard or establishing voluntary guidelines. Chao held three hearings this summer, where individuals who testified were asked to answer three questions: How should an ergonomics injury be defined? How should it be determined if a musculoskeletal injury occurred on the job? What should be the course of action once an injury occurs?

There is strong pressure from labor unions for a new standard, modeled along the lines of the old one. Industry lobbyists, on the other hand, argue that since very little is known about the cause and effect of MSDs, a comprehensive standard will not accomplish the desired outcome. PIA, specifically, is pushing for industry-specific activity that will help determine best practices in printing companies, particularly in computer workstation, lifting and bindery activities.

“Although our industry is one of the safest, we believe that we can reduce injuries through greater awareness and better practices,” Lechner says. “We have a long way to go, however, to find solutions that won't simply result in automation at the expense of jobs.”

GATF (Sewickley, PA) estimates that last year's version of the ergonomics standard would have cost printers, binderies and prepress operations between $10,000 and $200,000 per facility to implement. Further costs would have been ongoing, such as training, updating equipment, and workers' compensation cost increases.