Leveraging Ergonomics In the PV Industry

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

[More details on this Photovoltaics World article can be found at electroIQ.com]

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

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