Three workers' compensation claims in three years, as a result of back injury, prompted a local television receiver manufacturer to examine the health and safety conditions of their production line, which led to the installation of special material handling equipment to obviate future problems.
The Matsushita Electric Company's television factory west of Sydney makes Panasonic sets for the local market. For the last 25 years at the Panasonic factory, when television sets had reached the end of the production line, two men were needed to manually lift the sets off the conveyor belt and onto a pallet ready to be forklifted into an adjacent storeroom. On an average day, 300 sets would be transferred.
At the beginning of the 1990's, as the size of picture tubes significantly increased, television sets began to weigh up to 60kgs. Employees involved in lifting the sets onto the pallets, soon began to visit the first-aid room more and more frequently, primarily complaining of muscle soreness and backache.
Within three years, three Worker's Compensation claims had been lodged, directly caused by back injury from lifting the sets, resulting in 141 days of absence and costing the company over $70,000.
After consultation with occupational health, safety and technical advisory staff and after assessing a number of proposals from manufacturers of suitable lifting and manipulating machinery, managers at the Panasonic factory decided to install Dalmec Industrial Manipulators.
The decision was based on the flexibility of the devices, the ease with which they operated, and their ability to maintain the required flow of goods. Also, a major consideration was the performance and low maintenance costs of the previous manipulator Dalmec had installed in another area of the factory three years earlier to lift and incline picture tubes into cabinets.
With the introduction of the manipulator, an employee previously required to lift television sets from the conveyor belt straight onto a pallet could now become the machine's operator, using it to transfer the set from the conveyor belt directly onto a pallet in the adjacent storeroom 6 metres away.
Supervised by Dalmec, the custom-made manipulator was installed with an overhead track system to allow maximum mobility and area coverage. A number of staff members were involved in extensive evaluation sessions, and by early August, the installation of the factory's second Pneumatic Manipulator was even more of a resounding success than had been initially anticipated.
According to Panasonic, the risk of injury to employees has certainly been eliminated in more ways than one.
Bending and lifting are no longer required to transfer the television sets to the pallets, and the ergonomic design of the manipulator ensures that muscle soreness and back strain will be avoided.
An added advantage has been that Panasonic has eliminated the need to use the electric forklift between the factory and the storeroom, which has further reduced the risk of injury to its employees.
The introduction of the pneumatic manipulator has also meant that more employees are able to perform the task of unloading the television sets from the conveyor belt, thus the job rotation scheme already in practice at the factory has been broadened.
One particularly positive aspect has been that female employees at the Panasonic factory are also able to perform the task.
Now, with the manipulator, transferring is virtually effortless, and many of the women on Panasonic staff are welcoming the opportunity to increase their skills by learning to operate the new equipment.
While potential productivity gains were not a catalyst in decisions to invest in the manipulator, only one operator is required at any time, thus making an extra employee available for work in other areas of the factory.
Matsushita anticipated a strong return on investment through reduced compensation claims, absenteeism and insurance premiums. Panasonic believes the manipulator would save the company at least $100,000 in the first year of operation. Following the performance of the Sydney installations, Dalmec Manipulators have now been installed throughout the Matsushita factory in Malaysia.