How ergonomics made welder safer, more comfortable
November 21, 2002
A good welder is a lazy welder, according to Greg Lamm -- but when he says lazy, hemeans comfortable. His microwelding workstation has been set up with ergonomics inmind.
A good welder is a lazy welder, according to Greg Lamm.
But you won't see him lying down on the job.
Lamm, who's been a welder for 36 years, specializes in microwelding at Superior Joining Technologies, Machesney Park, Ill., which specializes in certified gas tungsten arc welding (GTAW), microwelding, fabrication, prototype, tool and die and mold repair low- and high-volume production, CMM inspection, fixturing, resistance welding, and silver brazing.
Comfort is paramount on the job when Lamm is welding small parts—which requires him to use a welding lens-equipped microscope.
"You have to eliminate any movement," Lamm said. "I look to see how much of my arms and how much of my hands can be supported so that I'm moving only the torch and the wire."
Dental and surgical tools and tweezers are just some of the instruments Lamm uses to manipulate objects when he's precision welding.
Because he needs to get as close as possible to his work, he often sets his workpiece on an insulated copper plate so that his hands are right next to his work. He also uses fireproof insulation pads, which lay on top of a workpiece and have a hole in the middle to reveal the exact location he's welding.
In addition, his heat treatment equipment isn't too far away, which definitely is an ergonomics issue, according to Lamm.
"If I have to preheat a part, how far do I really want to carry it to get to where I'm going to weld it?" Lamm asked rhetorically.
Even though all of these elements have been incorporated into Lamm's workspace, it wasn't a simple task, and the arrangement still isn't perfect.
He and company owner Thom Shelow constructed the space three years ago and have been refining it ever since. Shelow, who's been a welder for 25 years, said his and Lamm's various welding experiences have helped them to understand ergonomics and what makes a welder the most comfortable.
"The key to precision welding is steadiness, and the key to steadiness is comfort," Shelow said. "All of these elements may look like creature comforts, but they're all part of doing the job effectively. Providing these elements is borne out of the attitude that drives us to remove from the workplace any obstacles that add difficulty to a job and prevent the workman from performing at his highest potential."
Lamm's workstation is arranged to be self-contained, so all the tools he needs are within an arm's reach. But as a former welding business owner, Lamm admitted that he didn't always consider comfort first in previous jobs.
He described his own business as the complete opposite of where he works now. The biggest contrasts were the floors, lighting, and air. His floors were concrete, which he kept swept; except for portable incandescent lights in the workspaces, only a few fluorescent lights illuminated the building; and he had no air conditioning.
"At my shop, if you ever went outside the building for any reason, when you came back in it was literally like going back into a cave," Lamm said. "Here you have epoxy-coated floors and diamond grinding wheels for grinding tungsten."
And even though Lamm is left-handed, he put up the workspaces in his business for right-handed welders. This also changed when he went to work at Superior.
Lamm also once worked at a tire factory, where ergonomics was the farthest thing from his mind. His job was either to make or repair parts that would assist the tire manufacturers. His job was based on just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing.
"You didn't think of what would make your job easier, because you had people breathing down your neck," he said. "You were thinking about how fast you could get it done, based on how long someone wanted the part to last."
But both Lamm and Shelow agree that it's just as important for the welder to last at a job, and it's critical to commit to ergonomics whenever possible.
Shelow said he's seen welders who have taken beatings from their work, just from not working safely and ergonomically.
"They can't see; they can't hear because they didn't wear earplugs; their legs are blown out; they have bad backs—it's sad," he said.
To prevent injuries and poor health caused by unsafe or unergonomic environments, Shelow said he tries to supply his welders with all equipment necessary to help them do their jobs as comfortably as possible. And as new projects come into the shop and tools change, these ergonomic needs constantly evolve.
"Some ergonomics equipment is expensive. I think that's why management can be reluctant to buy what can look like toys and perks for the welder who should quit complaining and just do his job," Shelow said. "Management needs to recognize the value in the long range; most important, the health of the employee, as well as profitability, as a result of increased efficiency."
"If you can justify it, over time you learn what makes your job easier," he said. "For example, what we have here is a very clean environment. We stock the materials we need, the air conditioning is on in the summer, the heat is on in the winter, it's well-lit—appearance matters."
Basically, Lamm said, it's important to him to do his job well, and comfort is a means to that end. Because his workstation is set up as ergonomically as possible, he said it removes almost all of the variables a welder thinks about that might negatively affect the quality of his welds. If he's as comfortable as possible, he should be able to weld better.
"You have to think through everything," Lamm said, "so you can figure out where everything works best."