Tips for Industrial Workstation Design

Last week, we defined industrial ergonomics and discussed strategies that would ensure the success of an ergonomic initiative.  We also discussed some of the pitfalls of trying to implement a program when there is not a solid plan in place.  I would recommend reading that post titled, “What is Industrial Ergonomics?” before proceeding any further in this article. 

In recent years, I have seen a larger emphasis placed on ergonomics and safety from small to large corporations.  I believe this is a solid step forward into protecting the safety of team members and improving their quality of life.  However, let’s not forget that even though most companies want to see their employees lead healthy and active lives, this comes with a cost, and if it doesn’t make financial sense, then these initiatives often die.  The reason we are seeing companies place a greater emphasis on worker safety, health and wellness is because work related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs) are cutting into revenue of companies at a rate higher than ever before.  These WMSDs are on the rise due to a shortage of skilled and nonskilled workforce, an increase in production demands, frequent overtime and the popularity of the 12-hour work shift.  If you have been tasked with developing an ergonomic initiative for your company, have limited resources and are not sure where to start, I have provided a simple list of tips below.  Implementation of these are guaranteed improve the ergonomic design of industrial workstations, are easy to implement and will not cut into operating budgets.

  1. Make sure the work stays between waist and chest level.
    1. When I am analyzing a hazardous workstation that involves frequently handling products and repetitive motions, almost always, the work level is not right.  The optimal work level is between waist and chest level depending on the nature of the work.  Unfortunately, there is no “magic height” for a workstation that can accommodate everyone. The “standard” height that accommodates most statures is around 40 inches, however, this is not a “magic” number.  I would recommend providing a workstation that can be raised and lowered depending on the height of the individual.  This can be accomplished with expensive interventions such as a mechanical lift to raise/lower a work station, or can be done with relatively simple measures such as a crank style workstation, risers that can be added/removed, placing a standing platform near the workstation for shorter employees or placing a work platform on top of the workstation for taller employees.  Please see the picture below for optimal work levels:
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  • Get materials off the floor!
    • It amazes me how many workstations have materials that require frequent lifting stacked on the floor.  Placing pallets of boxes or heavy materials on the floor should never happen.  Not only does this present a tripping/falling hazard, it greatly increases the physical job requirements and the likelihood of a WMSD. The best and most costly engineering control would be to implement rotating mechanical lifts to place materials on, however, this may not be possible due to due budget or space constraints.  A simple fix would be to place materials on stacks of pallets or onto a nonadjustable stand.  Most maintenance departments have the capability to fabricate a fixed stand in-house.
  • Make sure the work occurs directly in front of the worker.
    • I often see workstations designed (especially assembly workstations) that have frequently handled materials placed outside of a comfortable reaching range.  Employees should not have to completely extend arms, rotate trunk or walk to retrieve required parts on a consistent basis. I would recommend walking through your facility looking specifically for this and believe you will be surprised to see how prevalent the setup I described is.  Not only does a poorly designed workstation negatively impact ergonomics, it also negatively impacts production rate.  Think how much more efficient workers would be if they did not have to overreach, sidestep, rotate trunk or walk when retrieving parts for the assembly process.
  • Limit weighted carrying.
    • This ties into number 3 above.  Make sure that all materials or stored near the workstation.  Lifting/carrying materials to workstation is not only inefficient, it adds unneeded physical demands to the position.  If materials are unable to be stored near workstation, ensure that workers are utilizing a fork truck, pallet jack or cart when transporting heavy materials.
  • Add a footrest.
    • For positions that maintain static standing postures (think small part assembly), a step stool or bar positioned directly in front of the worker at a height of 8-10 inches is a great way to provide a shift in posture an relieve back pressure.

Improving ergonomics isn’t about having a huge budget, it is about being smart, consistent and working with what is available. I hope these tips have provided simple, easy to implement solutions for your workplace. If I can be of any assistance to you or if you have any questions, please connect with me by your favorite platform below.  I would love to start a conversation!

#MUUVWell,

Kevin Winn B.S., CIEE, CSCS, NSCA-CPT


Kevin is the Executive Director of HealthWorks Kinesiology and is a Certified Industrial Ergonomic Evaluator (CIEE), Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and a Certified Personal Trainer (NSCA-CPT).  Kevin holds a bachelor’s degree in Kinesiology and Health Promotion from Louisiana Tech University.

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