Hand sanitizer maker wipes off RSI with ergonomic improvements

A little less than two years ago, Deb Worldwide Healthcare, Inc. -— makers of hand sanitizers — faced a challenge to rid its workplace of repetitive strain injuries. Earlier this year, the Ministry of Labour has recognized the company's efforts and commended its achievement. Here's how they did it.
Repetitive strain injuries (RSI) can pose a huge problem for any company, but one particular manufacturer is finding that small changes can make a huge difference in employee safety.

A year and a half ago, Deb Worldwide Healthcare Inc. — a manufacturer of hand sanitizers based in Brantford, Ontario — was faced with an alarming number of RSI incidents among its employees, and realized they needed to address the issue head on.

An assessment of the work process, and how certain employees were doing certain tasks, allowed the company to identify what was directly causing the injuries: When bottled hand sanitizers reach the end of the production line, before they are boxed up, they undergo a “squeeze test” where workers on that line were supposed to lightly squeeze the bottle to test for any leaks. Some workers, the company found, were squeezing the bottles a little too hard, putting pressure on and injuring the forearm muscle.

Workers started to show signs of repetitive strain injuries — and at one point, the company recorded four injuries in a span of one week. These incidents moved the company to action.  Performing a risk assessment, the company soon realized that workers needed variation in their job so they are not doing the same tasks for long periods.

To address the issue, workers were put on job rotations that allowed them to perform a different task every 30 minutes, says Mary Jane Boersema, Deb’s director of manufacturing.

“So no matter what kind of job they are doing, they are no longer using their hands, their wrist, their elbows at the same task for more than 30 minutes… It was just, again, changing the mindset that we had to train people to do tasks that they may not have been necessarily familiar with,” says Boersema.

Introducing rotations was not the only thing the company implemented to address its RSI challenges, as the ergonomics assessment revealed a deeper root cause. The company quickly realized that to totally eliminate the need to even do squeeze testing on the bottles, it had to make some mechanical changes. By looking at not just the end of the production line that was directly causing the injuries, but the entire production process, the company was able to improve production quality and eliminated the need for squeeze testing.

“I think that by focusing stronger on fixing the equipment, keeping it working at the capacity we need it to work at, rather than just at the end of the line worrying about it… that whole philosophy, too, helped keep the injuries down. It’s less strain on the staff,” notes Colleen Armstrong, Deb’s office manager responsible for human resources.

Big change
This transformation began just over a year ago. Last March, Ontario labour minister Charles Sousa toured Deb’s Brantford, Ont., facility as part of the ministry’s campaign to raise awareness around work-related musculoskeletal disorders.

According to a statement from Deb, the company was chosen based on a recommendation from the ministry’s ergonomics team, which has been working with Deb to address its RSI issues.

“It was recognized that we swiftly initiated corrective action, preventing further injuries,” a statement from Bruce Koivisto, vice-president, regulatory affairs for North America, Deb Worldwide Healthcare Inc., says.

Implementing these changes wasn’t a smooth ride, however. It took more than mechanical improvements and job rotations for Deb to succeed in its quest to reduce and eliminate RSI. The workers’ mindset around their job tasks also needed a little overhaul.

Armstrong recalls when the company started implementing the job rotation, one worker approached her complaining and asking why the company was making her perform other tasks when she’s been doing the same single task for many years. After explaining to the worker the purpose of the whole exercise, Armstrong asked the worker to give the new routine a week and to come back to her if she still feels the same way.

Armstrong never got that second visit from the worker. “Mentally, there was a lot of response from people saying that, ‘Gee I’m not as mentally fatigued at the end of the day,’ which can be very physically draining as well as mentally.”

Changing the workers’ mindset and getting them on-board with the changes was one of the most challenging parts of the transition, Armstrong admits. But the workers soon realized the changes had been for the better.

Some of the workers have been receptive to the job rotation, Boersema says. “They also liked the fact that from a mindset, they weren’t as bored because they were constantly changing up the jobs. I got other people that tell me that they’ve actually gone home less fatigued than they had been in the past, depending on what job they had.”

Part of the change in the workers’ mindset is educating them on the concept of internal responsibility, where they are all responsible for their safety and that part of that responsibility is letting management know of any issues that affect their safety, Boersema says.

To complement that effort, workers were trained on recognizing early signs of musculoskeletal disorders. Workstations were assessed for further ergonomics improvement, such as raising some platforms where needed, putting in chairs in certain stations where workers don’t need to be standing to perform their tasks, and gave workers anti-fatigue insoles for their shoes.

The insoles were especially useful in the lab area, where putting in anti-fatigue mats on the floor was not an option due to sanitary considerations, notes Armstrong.

“We concentrated a lot on the plant, we weren’t focusing enough on what was happening in the lab,” she says. “And when we gave insoles to our lab technicians and analysts, they couldn’t believe how much that helped them with their fatigue, their back strain, their leg strain, and we started looking in those areas as well for adjustable chairs, proper steps with handles for shorter employees who have to reach the analytical machine. We started looking a little bit more throughout the building.”

In addition to relying on internal expertise — Boersema had formal training in ergonomics prior to joining Deb about a year ago — Deb also solicited outside help from the Ministry of Labour’s ergonomics team, which provided the company with some valuable resources, Armstrong says.

She acknowledges that the success of the initiative was significantly due to the employees buying into the program.

“I think when you look at these types of injury and you want to change your whole culture around safety, you have to look at it from the bottom to the top. You have to educate your employees on every level and you have to make sure that you have managers that understand and believe in it,” she says.