Comfort in the workplace
Ergonomic issues do not disappear with the transfer of crane operators from cabins to remote-control workstations, writes Stevie Knight.
Walk unannounced into a remote crane control room and you might find operators lying back on their chairs, relaxing as if they were watching a movie in a cinema. It might not be immediately apparent that those operators are directly responsible for millions of dollars of crane equipment.
But while a port’s chief operations officer would likely prefer to see the remote control crane team sat up and focused, it’s not right to blame the crew for this behaviour.
“This is just human,” points out Stephan Stiehler of Brieda Cabins — a designer of crane cabins for 40 years. “You are taking former crane drivers who were spending almost all their working day in isolation and putting them in an office — there are a lot of negatives and stress to being in a cabin, but we do need to bring back some of that concentration.”
This isn't smoke and mirrors designed to sell special seats for operators; in fact, the impact on productivity from a more considered working environment could put the effects from other, higher-profile investment in the shade. Ben Amick of John Hopkins University admits the results from one detailed study “came as a shock”: office workers who used a very adjustable chair and were given ergonomic training demonstrated an average increase in productivity of around 18%.
Bird’s eye view
While there are some ergonomic fundamentals such as adjustable surface heights, positionable armrests and so on, there are also less obvious options.
A few years ago, Martin Freer of CCD Design & Ergonomics looked at crane drivers in Felixstowe. He found that one of the big problems was lower back and neck pain, which is difficult to address even with supportive seating in the cabin. “We started to install cameras so the driver could get a better view without strain, but people just moved them out of the way and did as they'd always done,” he says. The reason was simple: “Even minimal movements of head and eyes give you a much wider field of vision than you get with any cameras,” he explains, “and it's all joined up.”
He says it is a similar issue for those relying on remote feeds “where there can be a lack of fluidity between the images”. Moreover, he says that getting it wrong can mean object tracking “looks like a game of tennis”, he says, adding, “you are better off if you can give operators a way to match their existing 'spatial map'.”
Also, alongside avoiding the problem of sunlight glare, personnel need control over local light intensity, especially if the port is looking at 24/7 operations. “Shift workers will tend to match the light to their diurnal rhythms: a room of 30 people won't all want it at the same level,” says Mr Freer.
There are other elements to successfully bringing operators out of the cabin. For example, just replacing a mouse with crane controls will cause trouble: Brieda Cabins and Ergocert's research showed strain on shoulders, elbows and wrists resulted from installing a pair of standard, 'high' joysticks on a desk.
These considerations are already being taken seriously in Virginia Port, where Brieda Remote Ground Control Station is recreating some of the 'cabin' ambience: “It's a mixture of remote desk and a dynamic crane driver seat,” explains Mr Stiehler. There are some interesting aspects: the demand placed on eye movement is limited to an arc under 70 degrees and joysticks are in an angled, low 'drop-down' niche.
Together with the desk support, this reduces shoulder flexing, elbow bending and, importantly, radial and ulnar deviations at the vulnerable wrist area by between 50% and 70%. Interestingly, parameters are adjustable for height and weight, but Brieda Cabins is now working on pre-programmed settings that will remember an operator's particular physique, activated by registration on the crane management system or using a personal radio-frequency identification tag.
However, it's not as if the seating can envelop the operator in a snug cocoon and be done with it. Mr Freer says: “Any posture you start off with isn't the one you end up in: your best position is always going to be your next one. The human body is a dynamic structure and it isn't meant to stay still.”
This makes physiological sense. As Dr Amick points out: “Sitting for long periods just isn't good for you - prolonged periods in any posture induces static muscle exertion, it inhibits blood flow and causes muscle fatigue”.
To counter this, Brieda’s Remote Dynamic Control Desk lets operators work in a standing position as well.
Focus and concentration
But remote operations can do more than ward off aches. Mr Stiehler sees tech like Brieda Cabins' as being able to “bring back focused and concentrated remote operations work”.
Supporting this, the John Hopkins University study found that two-thirds of the benefits of an improved work environment came from reorganising the workspace, not, as expected, from avoiding pain over the course of the day, says Dr Amick. He adds that another investigation revealed that the accuracy of workers handling insurance claims in the improved environment rose by a few percent.
“It might not seem as dramatic, but that's a monster of a result when you are paying out money,” he says.
Still, evidence suggests a relatively small amount of relief in the workspace can restore both cognition and physiology — just a few minutes walking or stretching can do the trick. That is, if you can get workers to recognise that's what they need.
This, in itself, is a ‘Catch-22’ issue: a number of studies have now pointed out that self-regulation — especially awareness that you should take a break — reduces when you are tired. In short, people are often bad at pinpointing when they need to rest.
So how can you make otherwise fit and healthy operators aware of their physiological requirements? On one end of the spectrum there are organisations that “ping a bell so everyone has to get up and stretch for five minutes on the hour”, says Dr Amick: “It might seem extreme, but it's been embedded in the company culture.” The other response is training: both Mr Freer and Dr Amick agree this makes an enormous difference.
Happily for remote crane drivers, those same studies on self-regulation and tiredness also point out that socialising, talking with co-workers, rather than, for example, checking Facebook or emails, leads to more rejuvenating rest periods. This is where an office comes up trumps, with more opportunity for real-life, social interaction than in a cab.
SIT UP AND TAKE NOTE
According to Martin Freer of CCD Design & Ergonomics, attention span in a control room can be assisted — or decimated — by environment.
“To get the overall control room environment right you have to understand how people interact - with the equipment, communications links, other people in the room and so on,” he says. “In New South Wales there's a concept for railway scheduling where they want to share information and so they look at a big video wall. On the other hand, call centres pack people into cubicles, but they have headsets and don't need to talk to each other.”
Some parts of the logistics chain take this very seriously. For example, “you can't get into the control room without a passcode for some safety-critical railway functions”, he explains.
Mr Freer's advice is to separate out differing requirements: “Don't think you can sit ten crane drivers in a room and then put, say, load planners in there as well — you'll end up with a noisy, disruptive environment.”
The ports industry might have something to learn from fleet operators. “It isn't about giving everyone an iPad, putting a giant screen on a wall to make a room look like a NASA control room, or creating an app and saying job done,” says Jon Key, of V Group. He explains that it can go as deep as getting everyone “to try new things and seeing if they make a difference to the results we deliver”.
“We're looking at how people talk to each other, work together, and solve problems ... as a team. Little things ... can have far more impact than a new piece of tech.”
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