Advancing ergonomics at New Belgium Brewery
It’s a natural goal of companies to minimize job related health costs and personnel turnover and to maximize productivity by workers, especially in factories. From heavy manual lifting and carrying to repetitive work and poor postures, brewery employees are not immune to injuries at the Colorado beer factories tourists frequent.
Weighing approximately 162 pounds, lifting, stacking and moving kegs pose a risk of injury to the entire back, neck and arms of brewery employees. Often in both kegging and bottling employees perform one movement for long periods of time, which can result in musculoskeletal disorders over time. To this end, companies are developing overall ergonomic strategies as integral parts of their business strategies.
One such company is New Belgium Brewery, in Fort Collins, Colo. As a leader in occupational safety, the brewery seeks to be on the cutting edge of safety advances. To do so, the brewery is collaborating with professors and students within the Mountain & Plains Education and Research Center’s (MAP ERC) Ergonomics and Occupational Health Psychology Training Programs at Colorado State University (CSU).
“We see a lot of value in collaborating with CSU on an educational level by allowing the students to get real world experience but at the same time we gain valuable information from the studies they do,” states Jason Tomsic, health and safety coordinator at New Belgium Brewery.
“New Belgium is one of the leading companies for health and safety, and they want to be on top of the latest advances in safety,” states Dr. John Rosecrance, director of the Ergonomic Training Program and associate professor at CSU and the Colorado School of Public Health. “We’re developing a partnership that is mutually beneficial to industry partners and to our Ergonomic Training Program at CSU.”
This mutually beneficial relationship is allowing Colorado State University students, like doctor of philosophy candidate, Angela Dartt, to complete their research at the brewery. Since ergonomics or human factors is the science of designing the job, equipment and workplace to fit the worker, Dartt’s research is looking at the reliability of measuring techniques within the field.
New Belgium is providing the perfect capacity for Dartt to employ these techniques on workers and Dartt is providing them with recommendations on how to reduce awkward postures of the neck and trunk within their bottling, canning and kegging lines.
Putting ergonomics techniques to the test
During the fall of 2009, Dartt spent two and a half months observing and collecting data on 17 New Belgium employees who work on the kegging and bottling lines. She monitored the posture of each person for two 8-hour shifts utilizing both direct observation and video analysis techniques.
Currently, these two techniques are the only ones ergonomists use to measure repetition, posture and time spent in certain positions, yet exposure variability is different. In direct observation sample time periods are for a worker’s entire 8-hour shift, where as video analysis only captures one or two hours.
“We have a lack of direct instrumentation to measure things like repetition and posture in the field of ergonomics,” explains Dartt.
In order to directly observe the postures of New Belgium employees, Dartt used an inclinometer, which is an instrument that is used for measuring angles of slope, elevation or inclination of objects with respect to gravity. The inclinometer she used is called a Virtual CorsetTMwhich not only keeps track of trunk inclination but also warns the wearer when a prescribed inclination angle limit has been reached. Dartt mounted the devices to the employees’ upper arms and backs and took measurements eight hours.
Additionally, Dartt shot more than 100 videos of the employees working, which she is currently analyzing. These videos only provide a small snapshot of a person’s shift and do not give a complete picture of employees’ postures throughout entire shifts.
“As ergonomists we capture moments in time to represent a worker’s full exposure, but we also realize there are limitations to this because we don’t know true exposure over long periods of time,” explains Dartt. “Without the data we cannot say whether a worker is being exposed to an awkward posture or not.”
“We need reliable and valid methods for measuring exposures in ergonomics. Angie’s project will help with the development of those new methods needed in industry,” Dr. Rosecrance explains.
By comparing direct reading instruments, like the inclinometer, to video analysis techniques, Dartt hopes she can prove or disprove inter-method reliability. “I really want to find out whether an hour is a good representation of employees exposure during their whole 8-hour shift,” Dartt says.
“My hope is this project will help researchers understand if they need to look at exposures over long periods of time or if studying short time periods in a person’s day is enough,” she continues.
A mutually beneficial relationship
Although Dartt’s research is focused on finding good ways for ergonomists to measure exposure and improve data collection, she is helping New Belgium reduce awkward postures in their factory. “Through this research, we’ve been able to capture a lot of awkward postures simply by being with the workers while they are on the kegging line,” states Dartt. “This has allowed us to troubleshoot the problems as they occur.”
Throughout the process New Belgium has been able to receive expert advice on a new manual materials line within its factory. The company has been able to look at their machines to see if they meet human expectations and fit all employees, says Dr. Rosecrance.
“When we rollout a new design we focus on the ergonomics in the workstations,” explains Tomsic. “After some time, we reevaluate those workstations and make changes appropriately. CSU has really provided great feedback on how we can alter our designs and their presence is getting positive feedback from our employees.”
In the past year, CSU students in the advanced ergonomics course have been able to complete three research projects with the brewery. One of those projects looked at the safety climate at New Belgium which is the measurement of how the employees feel about safety and whether they believe safety is important to the company. Their study found that New Belgium employees feel very safe and know that safety is important to their company.
By April, Dartt plans to have her dissertation finished so she can graduate in May. However, the collaboration between New Belgium Brewery and CSU will continue and Dr. Rosecrance hopes to build more partnerships with industry.
“Collaboration with industry partners gives our students opportunities to work in the real world and to bring those experiences back to the classroom.”
Learn more about the Mountain & Plains Education Research Center (MAP ERC) and its academic programs on its Web site.