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Operator comfort and your bottom line

5 min read / October 31, 2019 / Staff Writer

Operator in Komatsu blasthole drill

Heavy equipment designs reflect the importance of ergonomics on productivity.

Operator comfort may not be something that’s top of mind when making business decisions, but uncomfortable operators become fatigued operators. Fatigue of any kind poses a workplace hazard, as well as reduced productivity. According to the National Safety Council, the challenge costs employers $1,200 to $3,100 per employee annually, due to absenteeism, health care and other related costs.

Fatigue affects all of us, regardless of skills, training and knowledge. It influences your physical and mental abilities needed for even the simplest of tasks.

The impact of fatigue on work can include:

  • Reduced mental and physical functioning
  • Increased risk of illness
  • Decreased alertness and slower reaction time
  • Impaired concentration and judgement
  • Decreased motivation

A study published in the American Journal of Health Promotion stated employees that “almost always” felt tired during the day missed an average of 2.7 times more days of work and had 4.4 times more productivity loss than those who reported “almost never” feeling tired.

Shift-work fatigue, a common challenge in construction and mining, exasperates the problems. Those working long or varied shifts are more prone to being tired and making mistakes that could injure themselves or others. The highest rate of catastrophic incidents is usually found among shift workers.

Fatigue can be attributed to many factors, the most important being a lack of restorative sleep. The various factors typically fall within physical, mental and environmental load. Physical load includes things like physical exertion, awkward posture and repetitive movement. Mental load can include irregular work hours and job demands and stress. Environmental load includes things like temperature, noise, light level, vibration and humidity.

As there are a myriad of factors that can contribute to someone’s level of fatigue, there is no one single way to eliminate fatigue. But, with a holistic approach, you can reduce the triggers.

The rise of heavy equipment ergonomic improvements

Thirty years ago, ergonomics hardly figured into the industrial design landscape but well into the 21st century, equipment accommodates a more diverse, gender-neutral workforce. From lighter safety tags to ergonomic trapping shoes to more accessible controllers, design improvements to heavy equipment are made to enhance operator comfort, increase productivity and reduce injury.

Repetitive tasks, high temperature or high noise environments can still cause or intensify fatigue. Newer cabs address typical problem areas for operators: adjustable heated seats, adjustable lumbar support, and easier-to-use control systems.

Operator in Komatsu 2650CX hybrid mining shovel

Reducing repetitive hand movements in heavy equipment operation can reduce the risk of hand injury for the operator.

On electric rope shovels, cabs can be equipped with microwaves and refrigerators, sinks and sanitary facilities, and other amenities to provide additional operator comfort.

“Wellness is a big part of our job,” said Luke Tolley, a product manager of Komatsu’s hybrid shovels. “If there’s a button we can put in position that’s easier to get to, we want to know.” Operators reported less physical fatigue from digging, for example, after using new adaptive controls on the P&H 4800XPC series shovels, which were upgraded to limit forward and backward tipping. Wellness is also good business; productivity reportedly went up among users.

Heavy equipment typically requires wrist movement for operation — forward or backward — to move, reach, and cut material. To mitigate this, attention has gone to reducing the need for uncomfortable repetitive hand movements to reduce the risk of hand injury.

Heavy equipment has seen vast improvement where joysticks are placed so instead of reaching and extending, the operator merely pushes a button. Nicholas Voelz, product manager – electric mining shovels at Komatsu, was behind a “low force use” joystick in electric shovel modules. With core functionalities located on easily accessible buttons, it responds to a flick of the wrist rather than concentrated arm movement and eliminates the need for awkward reaching to control shovel movements.

Thankfully, operator comfort is taking a front seat when it comes to product design. “Most shovel operators I’ve met are happy when they’re comfortable,” said Voelz. He recently toured the country to let customers try out different designs and gathering feedback. The result: The development of more comfortable seat modules for some of the largest equipment in the industry.

Every aspect of operator comfort scrutinized

Beyond the physical comforts, noise and vibration have an impact on the operator’s comfort and safety.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 22 million workers are exposed to potentially damaging noise levels at work each year. Exposure to loud noise kills the nerve endings in the inner ear. The result is permanent hearing loss.

“When we designed our cab, we put in a good amount of effort to make sure it was quiet inside,” said Voelz. The interior contains sound-dampening acoustics and insulated air conditioning fans that remain below industry thresholds. Similar adjustments are available whether you’re operating a forest machine, a truck or heavy drill equipment.

Operator in Komatsu blasthole drill

Drills have been designed to mitigate vibration, which can increase operator fatigue.

Every aspect of the job is being scrutinized by a variety of organizations,” said Global Product Manager – Room & Pillar, Toby Cressman. Take problems that stem from vibrations: “We know that jerking and bouncing around makes operators more fatigued, drive slower, less productive and more likely to err,” he said. Several features can lessen shuttle car fatigue. Newer suspension systems reduce acceleration jolts, and variable-frequency drive (VFD) allows for softer start-ups, are just a couple examples.

Drilling is another area where vibrations lead to fatigue. On Komatsu’s latest P&H XR surface drills, the core structures were redesigned to mitigate vibration, with a less than 62 dBA environment, vibration dampening and insulation from the exterior to keep out excessive dust. Because the new bit carousel system removes the need to change bits manually, operators spend less time handling bits, another way to reduce strain or injury.

Joy underground mining battery hauler

Vibration can increase operator fatigue, which influences your physical and mental abilities needed for even the simplest of tasks. Today’s heavy equipment is designed to reduce vibration, jerking and bouncing.

Operators who work underground face unique risks, however. In longwall shearing, the need to gaze upward while monitoring machines can take a toll on operators. Shoulder, neck and back strains are caused by repeatedly lifting heavy bolters throughout the day. Shawn Franklin, product manager – longwall shearers, sets the vision for products based on customer input. He said new control options can free operators form some of their usual monitoring and mitigate some of that physical fatigue.

Sitting atop heavy machinery, the view isn’t always clear. Nowadays, adjustable air suspension and swivel features enable operators to face the direction of travel without awkward straining or limited visibility.

One thing is clear, operator comfort is taking a front seat when it comes to product design to reduce fatigue and improve safety and productivity.

Could operator comfort impact your bottom line? Let us help!