Sewing and Ergonomics

With an increase in overseas garment manufacturing, many apparel plants in the US have very low profit margins.
It may seem that investing in ergonomics is a luxury in such a difficult economic climate, but it may in fact be a necessity.
Up to 30% of operators in some apparel plants report symptoms of musculoskeletal disorders, such as tingling in the hands and fingers and aches and pains in the arms, shoulders, and neck. Without intervention, these symptoms are likely to turn into costly lost-time injuries.
Ergonomic changes can reduce discomfort, pain, and injury.
The return on investment in terms of improved quality and productivity and lower workers' compensation claims and turnover may justify the expenses on work improvements.

The Problems

A table that is too low forces workers to hunch forward, which strains the neck, back, and shoulders.
When the table is too high, workers must raise their shoulders unnaturally, which tires the neck, shoulders, and upper back.
Reaching into the distance to access, position, or move material puts a strain on shoulder and elbow joints and on the back.
Resting forearms or wrists on sharp edges of tables blocks circulation and pinches nerves, increasing the risk of injury to hands and arms.
Poor lighting requires workers to strain their eyes and bodies in order to position themselves to maximizeize illumination.
Sitting or standing in awkward positions or for long periods of time is tiring and contributions to strain on legs and back.
The operation of sewing machine pedals contributions to musculoskeletal disorders of the feet and legs.

Equipment Solutions

For most operations, worktables should be positioned so the top surface is at elbow height and the operator can work with straight wrists.
Adjustable tables allow workers to customize the height of their workstations. This is particularly important where operators share workstations. Sit / stand operations allow for even greater flexibility.
Work surfaces that tilt 10-15 degrees keep materials in line of sight and reduce awkward arm, neck, and trunk postures. Tilting away from the operator helps pull heavy fabric through the machine without a lot of force.
Ergonomically designed chairs contribute to the adjustment and comfort of the workstation.
For standing operators, anti-fatigue mats help prevent back and lower extremity circulation problems.
Adjustable task lights with optional magnifiers allow workers to position lights where they need them and avoid glare, reflections, and shadows.
Padded or rounded table edges reduce pressure on wrists and forearms.
Pressure sensitive foot pedals allow activation with just a gentle weight shift.

Other Solutions

Sewing machine operators require training in recognizing the symptoms of ergonomic injury. To make maximum use of ergonomic equipment, operators need training in how to use it. For example, an adjustable height workstation does not good if workers do not know how to change the height.
Regular rest breaks can tie tired muscles. Cross training or job enlargement may reduce stress on the body by allowing employees to work on different types of tasks.

Is It Worth It?

An assembly plant that invested US $ 57,000 in workstation redesign, including adjustable worktables, saved US $ 490,000 over 12 years. Turnover declined 30% and ergonomics-related lost workdays went down 57%.
A study of 132 US apparel manufacturers found that the companies that invested in ergonomic sewing equipment increased both productivity and quality.
Successes such as these justify investments in ergonomic equipment. In these tight economic times any way to boost profitability is worth consideration.