Leveraging ergonomics in the PV industry

Making ergonomic changes can have multiple benefits to the PV industry — reducing/preventing injuries, increasing morale, reducing turnover, and increasing productivity — that can provide tangible contributions to the bottom line, explains Jessica Ellison from EORM.

by Jessica Ellison, Environmental and Occupational Risk Management

December 21, 2009 – As the photovoltaic (PV) industry expands and large-scale capital equipment is introduced to support the market, it is increasingly important to evaluate how similar industries have incorporated ergonomics into all aspects of their R&D and manufacturing processes.

Ergonomics, which by definition is the science of designing the job, equipment, and workplace to fit the worker), assists suppliers and end-users in avoiding injury/illness and ensuring that employees have the potential to work at their full capacity. Despite significant automation of processes, proactive companies will gain significant benefit in examining each step of the PV process: introduction of raw materials into the manufacturing environment, operation of production tools, preventive and corrective maintenance, offloading and packaging product, and installing the final product(s) in the field to minimize the potential for ergonomic hazards.

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Jessica Ellison, senior EHS consultant, EORM

The greatest opportunity to implement changes that will reduce ergonomic hazards is in the design phase of the project, including both the design of the actual end-product and the design of the machines that will manufacture it. When changes are made at this point, the cost is typically only a few hours of redesign time — vs. weeks of redesign, retooling, and many times replacement of equipment once the machine is actually on the production floor. When implemented reactively, solutions may not be as well integrated and it may be more difficult to eliminate the risks.

With that caveat, changes can still be made after a process is in place. Once an operation is running, it may be evident that there are areas where there are bottle necks, complaints, or high turnover. These are all places where ergonomics can be used to make improvements.

The semiconductor industry has created a guideline that can be used by all designers of manufacturing equipment: reference SEMI S8-0308 (“Safety Guidelines For Ergonomics Engineering of Semiconductor Manufacturing Equipment”), which outlines reach and distance tables that would allow user operation of the machines with low ergonomic risk. Some key guidelines:

  • Limit reaches to 9 inches where possible, and do not exceed 13 inches.
  • If lifting an object, keep the height of the coupling point of the object to 35-40 inches from the floor.
  • For monitoring areas, keep the tops of the monitors to eye height if possible, and no higher than 55 inches from the floor for a seated workstation.
  • Provide enough room for maintenance work and access to areas that will need maintenance work. Keep in mind that the dimensions for the work areas change depending on the position in which the employee needs to be to complete the work — i.e. bending, kneeling, laying down, etc.

Incorporating ergonomics into the design process offers benefits beyond worker safety. Products designed for ease of installation are easier to market to installers; this may differentiate them from the competition and help to increase sales. Designing equipment and processes with the worker in mind can also increase productivity, increase morale, and decrease turnover. Ergonomics looks for places where there is a “waste” of motion, where people are moving more than necessary (reaching, stretching, picking up and putting down tools, etc.). By examining these areas and decreasing reaches and motion, ergonomic interventions not only reduce physical stressors for workers, but also can reduce the time needed to perform a task. This time savings may translate to more parts per hour, which equals a monetary savings and an increase in productivity.

Some examples of ergonomic solutions that also increase productivity:

  • Incorporate pallet positioners, workstation cranes, and vacuum lifting devices are three leading ergonomic solutions that promote worker safety and productivity.
  • Use air-pad equipment for large scale movement of material.
  • Lifts with end effectors specifically designed to assist with maintenance tasks decrease the ergonomic risk by eliminating force while also reducing the number of people needed to perform the manual handling task of moving turbo pump, crystals, heating elements, etc.
  • Implement automation and robotics to move panels from one part of the process to the next. This again reduces the risk by eliminating the material handling and also decreases the number of people who need to be involved on the production floor.
  • Adjust monitors on equipment to meet ergonomic guidelines reduces awkward postures of the neck. An added result is that employees will spend more time on task viewing monitors for issues due to the increased comfort at the workstation.
  • Redesign access panels where filters are accessed weekly from panels requiring full removed to panels with fixtures that hold the panel open during the maintenance process reduces the fall risk of removing panels over 10 feet above the ground. (This also removes force needed to remove the panels and awkward postures.) By not having to remove the panels, maintenance personnel are expected to save time by eliminating steps in the maintenance process.

Overall, ergonomics can have multiple benefits to the PV industry. When implemented well, an ergonomic program can reduce/prevent injuries, increase morale, reduce turnover, increase productivity and provide tangible contributions to the bottom line.

Jessica Ellison is a senior EHS consultant at Environmental and Occupational Risk Management (EORM). E-mail: jellisonj@eorm.com .

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