CHAMPAIGN - There's a lot less bending, turning and twisting on the job for Dien Phan since her company installed a new robotics device.
Phan, a production technician for Advanced Filtration Systems Inc. in Champaign, used to bend over, pick up filter elements from a conveyor, check them, turn to her left and place them on a higher conveyor.
Now most of that work is done by a robotic arm.
"It's made a lot of difference," said Phan, who inspects filters to make sure they don't have any flaws or tears and are even on both sides.
"It's a lot easier," said fellow technician Carrie Jeffers, who, like Phan, has worked at AFSI for four years. "It's more accessible; there are no more stairs to climb. Everything is waist-high and automated. It's alleviated a lot of manual stuff we had to do on our own."
The robotics project, which cost AFSI about $2 million, recently won top honors in a competition sponsored by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration's office in Peoria.
Central and southern Illinois employers were invited to submit innovative workplace safety and health practices for consideration. AFSI walked away with the top prize, the "Z" Project Award, named for Peggy Zweber, director of the Peoria-area office.
OHSA called the project an "innovative hazard control" and said it "greatly decreased potential risks associated with musculoskeletal disorders, or ergonomic-related injuries."
AFSI's project won because it "went over and above what would be required by any OHSA standard," said Brian Bothast, OHSA's compliance assistance specialist in Peoria.
"It appeared the project would reduce or eliminate ergonomic hazards associated with that line of work," said Bothast, who worked in environmental health and safety at Caterpillar Inc. before taking his current job with OHSA.
Dick Jesse, associate environmental engineer at AFSI, said the robotics project was done to minimize human handling of the filters - and thus potential damage to the product - but also to reduce injuries.
"It's decreased handling of filters by 70 percent for this point of the (production) process," Jesse said. "Before, they had to handle every filter. Now they don't."
The problem with the old process was that inspectors continually had to use a "pinch grip" to pick up the filter elements, then had to turn their wrists toward the "end range of motion" to put the elements on the other conveyor.
That put the inspectors at potential risk for a musculoskeletal disorder, even though inspectors are rotated in and out of that position.
"(The process) is not really done any faster, but it decreases the risk of having ergonomic injuries," Jesse said. "We don't have a real high injury rate here, but our goal is zero."
AFSI, at 3206 Farber Drive, C, employs 155 people and turns out about 800,000 filters a month. It's a joint venture between Caterpillar Inc. and the Donaldson Company. AFSI makes hydraulic, oil and fuel filters primarily for the Caterpillar after-market.
AFSI undertook 108 projects last year and submitted five of them in the "Z" Project competition, Jesse said. The 108 projects ranged from sound abatement projects to the installation of lights that have "healthful benefits" for employees, he said.
Besides AFSI, other winners in the "Z" Project competition included:
- Arkay Plastics of Paris, which won the Lifesaver Award for a fall-protection system developed by the company and its workers. The system was developed to reach resin hoppers that are 15 to 20 feet off the ground.
- Mel-O-Cream Donuts International of Springfield, which won the Pluto Award for a concept that's unusual and innovative. The company designed a database system that allows identification of hazards throughout the workplace, ensures employee involvement and assists in prioritizing hazards.
- P.J. Hoerr Construction Co. of Peoria, which won the Alveoli Protection Award for a control that improves air quality. The company came up with an inexpensive quick fix to provide a water spray for an employee cutting concrete blocks, thus protecting him from overexposure to silica.
You can reach Don Dodson at (217) 351-5227 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org .