How to Choose the Best Work Equipment for Your Team
how to choose the best work equipment for your team and reduce injury
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Buying work equipment.

Tricky business right?

Where do you begin? 

You have many factors to consider:

“Is it fit for purpose?”

“How often would it be used?”

“Who would be using it?” 

“When would it be used?” 

“Is it within our budget?”

“When do we make the switch?”

“Who would be involved in the decision making?” 

And the list goes on and on.

Then you buy the work equipment and after a while you start receiving complaints. Your workers are reporting injury.

Shocked! 

“What went wrong?” “Why the complaints?” “Why the injuries?” you ask. 

After all, you followed the checklist and met the requirements. You didn’t just pick up a glossy brochure and bought blind!

Two Words: Usability And Trialling

One of the main reasons I’m brought in by a company to carry out assessments is because the equipment doesn’t fit the worker(s) . That’s poor usability.

From driving to manual handling assessment, the reason is mostly the same. 

Your employee or team couldn’t safely use the equipment and are now complaining of injury. They might even have gone off-sick. And refusing to return unless the equipment was changed.

Does that sound familiar?

Not because the machine, vehicle, furniture didn’t work as intended. But your employee complains of pain when they use or interact with it. 

Your employee might be too tall in the case of a van driver. There isn’t enough leg room or head space causing them knee and back pain. Or the hand-held machine is too loud and vibrates too much causing back pain. Perhaps the work surface is too high and they are overstretching. Which gives them shoulder pain. 

These are a few of the many scenarios but they all point to the same thing – USABILITY.

What Is Usability?

usability to fit the work equipment to the user
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According to UsabilityNet, it is making products and systems easier to use and matching them more closely to user needs and requirements. 

A 2006 research published in Software Quality Journal, reported that usability not only increases the speed and accuracy of the range of tasks carried out by a range of users of a system. But also ensures the health and safety of the user.

How To Apply Usability

Let’s go back to the beginning.

You want to buy a fleet of vehicles. Kit up your office or replace that machine. The first thing you need to do (you know this already) is to have a list of features. Features that the work equipment must have to be fit for purpose. 

For example. a desk big enough to accommodate two monitors. A van that can whizz in and out of a city. A hand-held barcode scanner with a higher processing power. A machine with less vibrating power. And this is a good one, a trolley that can move in a straight line without breaking your back.

You get my gist, right?

When you have whittled it down to a handful of choices, you now need to access its usability. 

Here are the four main factors of usability to consider;

1. The Users – Who Would Use The Work Equipment or Tool?

I can’t say this enough. Evaluating the makeup of your team is vital. No team is the same. It doesn’t mean that if the work equipment worked in your previous team it would work with this team. 

So before you go splashing out, review the;

a. Body Sizes in Your Team

This is known as anthropometrics. It is the study of the physical measurement of the human body. It is widely used in ergonomics, in the design of workspace, tools and equipment. 

The question you should be asking are:

– How tall is the tallest person or the shortest person in your team? That is if you are purchasing a product that height might be a factor. For example, in the case of a van or workstation. 

– Is there enough legroom? Can the;

– Shortest person reach the foot pedal? 

– Shortest person reach the shelves without overstretching? 

– Get into the enclosed room without having to stoop?

– Would it fit smallest or biggest hands?

– Can it adequately protect the biggest person?

– What’s the maximum weight it can accommodate? Is that enough for your biggest team member (without body shamming, of course).

b. Age Differences in Your Team

Sometimes age can affect how a work equipment is used. If people are used to using a particular type of system, they might struggle with the new change. This is not to say all older team members are tech-phobes or stuck in their ways. Of course, the high use of smart phone says otherwise. 

But it means that you might have to retrain your staff. And address their difficulties or resistance with care.

Age might also come in play if the job task is labour-intensive. HSE recent statistics showed that the rate of work-related musculoskeletal disorder was significantly highest in over 45s. 

Want to know more about musculoskeletal disorders, check out this post: What is Musculoskeletal Disorder?

– What are the age bracket of your team? 

– Can the older team members grasp the software technology as quickly as the younger team members? 

– Can the younger team (trainees) keep up with the work pace? 

– Does the software have assistive technology e.g. computer screen readers? 

c. Gender Ratio in Your Team

We all know when it comes to physical measurements, both sexes are different. Choosing the best work equipment means it must cater to both sexes. 

– What is the ratio of women to men? 

– Would the gloves be the right fit for the women as well? 

– Can the women wear the work equipment for up to 8 hours without fatigue? 

– Can the men multitask like the women? Ha! I’m being biased now!

d. Skill Levels in Your Team

– Are the newer team members skilful enough to use the work equipment with minimal training? 

– Do they need new certification to be proficient enough to use the work equipment? 

– Is the process of using the work equipmwent complicated?

– Are you going to train them up, if required? 

– How long would it take to upskill your team can use the equipment? 

– Who needs training? 

– Can your other skilled members help and coach on the job?

These are the questions you need to find out before you choose. Because it might fit a group of people but not the rest of the team. It might even need you to go back to the drawing board. That’s great than buying an equipment that could increase the risk of injury. Costing you more than you budgeted for.

2. What Tasks Would the Work Equipment Be Used For?

You have to spend a little bit more time here. Compare the features of the  work equipment to the task the team carries out during their shift. You need to analyse how the equipment would efficiently improve their task. 

In ergonomics, we call this TASK ANALYSIS. The Free Dictionary defines it as the process of dividing up an activity into components. For the purposes of delineating the specific abilities needed to perform that activity. It is used for various purposes e.g. in recruitment and risk assessment.

We have different ways of conducting task analysis. Some more complex than others. But I wouldn’t bog you down with the technicalities. Here is a simple way to perform one.

How To Carry Out A Simple Task Analysis

a. Describe the Job

A simple job description would do. For example, dumping bags into hopper or picking items from the shelves.

b. Break down the task into smaller tasks

Ask the team or user for the breakdown of their job tasks. Or you or someone else could observe them throughout the day. It doesn’t have to be too detailed. Enough to give you an overview of their job tasks.

c. Include the Duration for each Subtask

For example, filing for 30 minutes. Pushing trolley for a total of 2 hours throughout the work shift.

d. Tally up the task Frequency 

For example, how many times is filing carried out in a work shift. Or how many times boxes are lifted in a work shift.

e. Calculate how much time each subtask is allocated per shift.

I like to use percentages. Because you can clearly see the most subtask carried out. As well as the least task. 

Below is a sample of a task analysis of an office administrator.

simple task analysis example
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In the above scenario, let’s say the work equipment you wanted to buy was a desk. Looking at the breakdown, she sits at her computer for half of her shift computing. Would a sit-stand desk be ideal for her to alternate her positions?

Probably, you can now see that she needs a document holder for reading. You could also see that she spent 30 minutes on filing. Is there a better solution? Cloud file-sharing, perhaps!

It allows you make intelligent decisions on what the user needs to work more efficiently, based on facts.

NOTE: If you think you need a more detailed analysis. E.g. installing a work equipment that would change the team’s work processes. Or revamping an office of 200 employees with diverse job roles, then I recommend you call in the professionals, an ergonomist (I so happen be one!).

3. Environment- Where Would the Work Equipment be Used?

I once conducted an product ergonomic evaluation for a company. They wanted to introduce computer tablets for their field mobile workers. They had narrowed down to 2 choices. But wanted an ergonomics evaluation. One of the factors I analysed was the environment it was to be used. 

Outdoors. 

The viewing feature of one was superior to the other. Because it had no glare reflected on the screen. Both indoors and outdoors.

This inadequacy was not highlighted by the suppliers. So, if I wasn’t called in, they could have probably gone with the 2nd choice and made a fatal error. Rolling it to over 1000 staff and then realising the glare issue. It would have costed them more than they bargained for. But most importantly, their staff would have been at a higher risk of eye strain, headache and even neck pain.

– Find out what environment the work equipment would be used. Can it be used;

– Both in cold and warm temperatures? 

– In different ambient lighting levels without having to wear a torch accessory? 

– Be heard in that safety workshop or be quiet enough for the shop floor?

– On the surface you intend to use it on without slippage or damage?

4. Organisation – How Would The Work Equipment Be Used?

This is the area that can be difficult to analyse. But it has a huge influence on the buy-in and usage of the work equipment. It could be as simple as the layout of the office. For example, if the printer was in a different floor. It might become a hassle to pick up the print-outs. Thereby, slowing down processes or even misplacing sensitive print-outs.

Other factors to consider would be;

a. Work demand 

Would the equipment be able to keep up the high speed to churn out the end result? 

b. Staffing levels

Are there enough staff to interact with the machine? Or would there be safety implications?

c. Relationship with management

Who would address the difficulties and issues when they arise? Would your team feel heard? During the transition period, can changes be easily rectified?

d. Team behaviour

Would they totally buy-in or use alternate equipment? What is required for the equipment to function optimally?

With all these factors to consider, how do you go about finding out the answers?

That is where trialling comes in. Testing the equipment with the users to assess its suitability. And pinpoint any issues that weren’t highlighted.

How Important is Trailing?

I always recommend these to my clients. You never know how a work equipment would function until it’s tested.

There are no hard and fast rule to trialling. You could test it for one hour or one month. This would depend largely on the work equipment, the quality and the size of your team.

For example, if you were purchasing keyboards for 2 users, trialling it for an hour could be enough. Whereby, for a fleet of vehicles, 3 months trialled by a couple of the team members.

How Do You Trial Your Work Equipment?

trailing your work equpment improves usability
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Step 1: Shortlist Your Choices

Start with a shortlist of choices based on the features and your budget. Also bear in mind the accessories it might need.

Step 2: Select Team Members

Pick a selection of people from your team with different variables. For example, if purchasing a fleet of vans, pick the tallest and shortest team members. Measure the leg room, seat comfortability and accessibility to the foot pedals. You could choose your long and short distance drivers to check for comfort.

Step 3: Draft a Feedback Form

Have a checklist of the features you want to measure in a feedback form. Use a Likert scale in the feedback form to measure usability. Let it include features like comfort, ease of use and adjustability.

For example if you were trialling an office chair, the questions could be;

Questions: 

– Are the seat adjusters easy to reach and operate? How;

– Appropriate is the lumbar support?

– Adjustable are the back rest angle and height to suit you?

– Easily can the armrest slide under the desk or rotated to get out of the way?

– Supportive and comfortable is the seat within the hour, after 4 hours and all day?

– Easily can the chair move on its castors?

– Did any area of your body feel pain or discomfort? Give details.

Step 4: Analyse Report

Collate and analyse the data from the feedback form. Then use the information to make your final choice.

You have eliminated guesswork decisions, reduced pending injury and saved you money.

Choosing For Your Team Is Different From Choosing For One User 

Never underestimate the differences in your team. They might look cohesive but when it comes to choosing the best work equipment, it’s divided. 

Many studies over the years have shown the effect of work tool on workers’ health. It must be a good fit between the user and the tool. Or you might be asking for trouble. 

Work-related musculoskeletal disorder. 

Never be in a haste to choose work equipment. Even if the pressure to decide is mounting. Because your team would thank for it when you choose the best equipment for them. And your risk of work-related injury minimised. 

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By Ugo Akpala-Alimi

Ugo is a Workplace Musculoskeletal Health Expert. She is a Chartered Physiotherapist with a masters degree in Ergonomics. 15+ years' experience. Treated 9,000+ patients. Conducted work assessments++. Worked with companies including BP, UKPN. On a mission to help managers reduce work-related musculoskeletal disorders and create 'ouchless' workplaces. Hasn't yet gotten the magic elixir for injury-resistant workers (still busy concocting).

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