Tooling along safely

Tooling along safely

Ergonomic R&D makes a better, safer tool.

Ergonomic R&D makes a better, safer tool.

The new ergonomic RX pliers and cutters from Sandvik offer safe tooling to manufacturing.

In 1992, Sandvik launched a new generation of ergonomic adjustable wrenches.


Ergonomics has gone from a buzzword to an everyday reality and consideration when purchasing tools, setting up training, or organizing a work area. But companies looking to protect employees are not the only ones thinking ergonomically. In fact, manufacturers like Sandvik Saws and Tools, Scranton, Pa., invest heavily in ergonomic R&D for new product development.

Cumulative Trauma Disorders (CTD) like carpal tunnel, tendonitis, bursitis, and other strain injuries have become more common in industry, and are often caused by force, repetition, and bad posture. Injuries can develop slowly, like with carpal tunnel, or they can be quick like strains and sprains. Whatever the CTD, the problems crop up when one motion is repeated without sufficient rest.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of reported repetitive-motion injuries in 1995 was 2,040,929, with 364,961 cases knocking workers off the job for 31 days. Looking specifically at repetitive tool use, BLS reports 12,289 cases, with 4,258 of those taking workers out of the plant for over a month. Gary Ore at the OSHA ergonomics office warns that CTD's are not cheap. According to OSHA sources, the average cost of a CTD case is $8,000 per injury—twice that of any other injury case. Ore adds that OSHA cost statistics may be conservative. "I was just at a seminar where officials were saying the cost was $20,000, so the exact numbers depend on sources and the specifics of what is included in each estimate. But I think the important thing to remember is that it is double the average case cost. These injuries are very expensive."

Sandvik Saws and Tools has been making ergonomic tools since the early '80s to combat workplace injuries. According to the National Sales Manager for the Professional Tools Division Mark Weigel, Sandvik's early involvement in ergonomics was not in response to an industry demand, but the product of forward European thinking. "We have been ahead of the curve in industry. Few people were thinking of ergonomics in the early '80s. However, our Swedish-based company likes to be in the forefront of a lot of health issues, and it could see that ergonomics was going to be important in the long run. Sand-vik saw that the market was maturing, realized the health problems, and determined that good ergonomic design was a way to set the company apart."

That is why the firm now invests heavily in ergonomic re-search and design. This information is then applied to Sandvik tools to increase their efficiency and safety. The company spent many years developing a detailed, quantifiable program that it could use to determine whether a tool received Sandvik's "ERGO" mark. But it wanted to ensure that the mark was not just a marketing tool. So, the company developed what it calls the 11-point program that incorporates experiences of end-users, ergonomists, industrial designers, research, development units, and extensive enduser testing. The two to three-year program consists of 11 clearly defined steps.

Sandvik questions users about experiences with its tools and how they would like to see them improved. Then, the company asks users to test a number of designs and give feedback on their impressions, which helps in the development of new prototypes and eventually a final design.

"I can't emphasize enough that this is a research approach," says Weigel. "This wasn't just developed by Sandvik, but with the help of ergonomists, industrial engineers, and extensive market/end-user discussion. In any research you want to set up a systematic approach that you can measure."

The first step, Preliminary specifications, determines the factors that the company takes into consideration, like how often will the tool be used, for how long, and by whom. The second step is Market analysis, which means studying the market to find what tools are most popular and why. Then Background research is done to look at existing injury reports and studies, performance tests, and documented user experiences.

The fourth step is Prototype design, which uses the information from the first three steps to design a dozen prototypes. The prototypes are then measured in step five by filming hundreds of hands at work with the tools. Sandvik takes exact measurements of each person's hand, recording length, width, and strength. Tests are controlled strictly, and each person receives a tool in the same packaging with the same instructions for use during a set, researched routine. Results are studied based on video recordings, inter-views, and questionnaires. This fifth step is User Test #1.

After this research is done it is time to evaluate and modify the prototypes. This phase, step six, usually takes two to three months and is completed with the design of a limited number of refined prototypes.

These prototypes undergo a second test, User Test #2, which is step seven. The number of prototypes is smaller than the original batch for User Test # 1, but a larger number of users is surveyed.

After this test, Final design recommendations are made, and a final prototype is designed if the test reveals a positive reaction. Step nine, Product specifications, is the step where designers look to CAD drawings to get the specs on the new tools, so that a limited number can be produced. User Test #3. Preparation for launch is the final test and uses 200 tools. This test is evaluated by ergonomists. If the final tests show that the tool works as it should, it is approved for mass production and gets an Ergo seal of approval from Sandvik. Step eleven is Follow-up—five years after the tools production, Sandvik talks one last time with users to make sure the tool is all they expected.

Ten types of tools have been through the program since the '80s. This may seem like a small amount, but Weigel explains, "You have to remember that it doesn't take a month or a couple of months. It takes three to four years to take a tool through this program. It has to be in the field twice for extensive end-user testing, and we do tests on two or three continents, so it takes a long time."

Weigel says this commitment is not inexpensive. "It is a heavy capital investment. But in the end we want to make sure we have a tool that really delivers a benefit to the worker. That way, we can uphold our position in the market as an industry leader and innovator in ergonomic products. This will help drive Sandvik into the future."

Sandvik's 11-point approach to ergonomics has gotten recognition from several ergonomists including S.S. Ulin, Thomas J. Armstrong, and Olle Bobjer at an international scientific conference of prevention of work-related injuries. Weigel feels that a validated research process is essential to ergonomic development, and he offers words of warning to buyers who want to purchase true ergonomic products. "Beware of companies labeling products as ergonomic without really having any type of research. Some companies use ergonomics as a marketing tool instead of as a real benefit to the worker."

Weigel sees this trend as more than just a potential cheapening of the term "ergonomic." "A worker could technically get hurt," stresses Weigel. "If a company wants to alleviate worker problems and selects tools that claim to be ergonomic but are not, that company ends up paying more for a product that doesn't get rid of the problem. Purchasing this type of tool ends up wasting a company's hard-earned money, and doesn't help workers. It can even reduce overall productivity."

Sandvik constantly redesigns tools to put out ergonomic products. "We are always looking to bring products into the Ergo family, and we are always evaluating tools that have been taken through the 11-point process to see if they can be improved."

The company's new electronic cutters and pliers are the most recent products to come through the program. These tools are lightweight, with comfortable, softly contoured hand grips that mold to different hand sizes. Sandvik slightly increased the length of the handles to prevent them from pressing into the palm of the hand. And the part of the handle nearest the blades has a "Micro Touch" shape that lets users control and rotate the cutter between the thumb and index finger for precise work.

Another feature is a new return spring that requires less strength to close the cutters. The spring can be set in one of three positions to adjust resistance.

Sandvik is on the verge of introducing a second generation of ergonomic screwdrivers. The tools went through the Ergo program in 1983, but Sandvik decided to take another look at the tools by analyzing slippage potential. "Originally the screwdrivers were a single-component handle with a shaft. We found that it was ergonomic, and it met our criteria, but there was still slippage. We also wanted workers to be able to quickly recognize the tool as the correct driver to use," says Weigel.

In order to ensure these improvements, the driver went through the testing process again, and some changes were made. Now handles are embossed with driver type and are color-coded. The handle has retained its same shape, but now has a softer material on the outer core that permits greater fingertip motion without slippage.

11-point program tools

Tool Year intrduced to market
Screwdrivers 1983
Adjustable wrenches 1984
Slip joint pliers 1985
Side cutting pliers 1989

Combination pliers & adjustable pipe wrench

1991
Adjustable wrenches 1992
Adjustable pipe wrenches 1993
Ratchet wrench, hand saw & electronic pliers 1994
File handle and gripping pliers 1995
Electronic pliers 1996
Total number of individual tools through the program = 265
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