Production Ergonomics

How to design a workstation

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The workstation is a central focal point for optimizing human factors in production areas, whether a stationary work bench or a flexible position on a moving line. Common shortcomings to be overcome are:

Poor interface with the product

The traditional approach for setting up a workstation is to start with a generic workbench and more or less plunk down the equipment, materials, and tools needed to do the job. A workbench like this can be fine in some settings, like a maintenance shop where a variety of different tasks are performed on different types of items.

However, when the work involves high-volume production, intricate tasks, or specialized operations, the traditional approach can create hindrances that waste time, lead to defects, and even create long-term disorders like back injuries or shoulder problems.

It is normally better to design a specialized workstation in these circumstances. The first rule of design — form follows function — applies.  Understand the task and then design for that.

Applying the principles: Workstations

Working position Force  Clearance 

You must understand the basic principles of human-friendly design to evaluate or design a workstation. Common issues and applications include:


Step 1 — Define the optimal height and orientation

Pretend you can levitate the work to the perfect position
The first step, which is the one most often neglected, is to understand the optimal orientation for the product relative to the employee who does the work. Sometimes the best position for the product is horizontal, but more commonly a product is best accessed when it is on a slant. Likewise, sometimes the product can stay in the same orientation for all the steps of the job, but more commonly different tasks are best done with the product in a different orientation, especially when the product is complex.

It may not be feasible to provide optimal orientation for each and every step of a job. However, knowing how the product can best be positioned provides your objective. If you don't know what you're aiming for, you can end up creating a workstation that contains inadvertent barriers to production and quality, and in addition causes wear-and-tear injuries among employees.

Consequently, for each step of the job, ask these questions:

As you start out, do not be overly concerned about how to actually support or move the item — that comes next. The point here is to define the ideal height and orientation to do the work: if you could do anything you wanted, where should the work be?

To help you answer these questions, consider the following:

Step 2 — Identify a fixture or holder

Fixtures, simple and complex

tep 2 — Identify a fixture or holder

Once you understand the optimal height and orientation of your specific situation, then turn to the practicality of how to achieve it. It could be a type of bench top fixture, a floor fixture, a conveyor workstation, or anything that you can think of. You may need height adjustment. If you need a work surface, the surface size may be smaller than you think, or it might be a slanted surface. Surprisingly, you may not need an actual surface at all.

You may need to brainstorm a bit (or a lot, depending upon the circumstances). The purpose for providing the various options in the linked pages is to help you think outside the box. You want to make sure you identify what works best for the situation, rather than what is familiar.


Unique potter's wheel workstation Highly adjustable pedestal workstation Electronics workstation Workstation made from die cart

Step 3 — Determine material handling requirements

Determine requirements and options for parts movement at the workstation. Consider parts movements within the individual workstation and between workstations, including loading and unloading methods, parts presenters, and height relationships within the equipment. Your goal is minimize the time and effort needed to move items around. Equalizing heights can especially be helpful, since it may allow you to slide materials from place to place, rather than needing to pick them up. (See also Ways to improve material handling and the Material handling knowledgebase.)

Step 4 — Define tool and material needs and their location

What tools and materials do you need to do the job? What workstation layout do you need so that each item is handy? What storage features right at the workstation do you need, i.e. supports, holders, racks, etc.? You need to define a place for everything and make sure it is in the right place. (See also All about hand tools and the Hand tool knowledgebase).

Step 5 — Review other issues for applicability:

The final step involves reviewing of a series of other ergonomics issues. Evaluate each of these topics as appropriate for your task:

Visual access is part of Step 1 for the item being worked on, but can include other parts of the workstation such as dials and computer monitors. The question is if what you need to see is in your line of sight.

Lighting is closely related to visual access, but has to do with issues like darkness and glare rather than line of sight.

Magnification is again related to visual access, but the question is if it would be helpful to enlarge the view of items.

Arm supports may be needed to provide proper support for the arms and hands in certain tasks.

Surface material — depending on the task, different types of surface material can be helpful: slippery, high friction, non-glare, etc.

Clearance is needed for your arms, legs, and other parts of the body. Additionally, there must be room for tools, headgear, gloves, and similar items that are used.

Sit-stand — in stationary jobs, it is best to alternate between sitting and standing, rather than doing either all day long. A range of techniques is available to

Seating is obviously important for certain types of work.

Flooring issues are equally important for standing work.

Standing platforms are sometimes needed to raise people up to a better work height.

Footrests can be beneficial — and critical in some situations — whether sitting or standing.

Point: Summary of design process

There are many checklists and evaluation tools available to help you evaluate these issues, including a basic checklist on this site. The point of this page is to provide guidance when you start from scratch in setting up a new workstation.

In sum, you start with the orientation of the product and the fixture needed to enable this orientation. Then you move "outward" to how the materials are moved in and out of the fixture, then to the tools and storage items that you need, and then to the other aspects of the workstation. Everything is based on the ability of the employee to do the job well, with minimal time and effort.

From workstation to production line

A production line is essentially a sequence of workstations that are connected one way or another. Consequently to set up a production line, you basically repeat this process multiple times.

The challenge is when different tasks are best done in different heights and orientations. The workstations must then be set up to be integrated with material handling systems.


Examples of how a moving conveyor line can be adapted for different heights and orientations are found in the introduction (evolution of the assembly line: auto assembly and ham boning.) See also the conveyor workstation for more issues and best practices.

Carts and casters

Adjustable cart Trunnion on wheels Portable work positioner

An alternative to conveyors is to use carts and free-standing fixtures. With the right features, these techniques combine the ability to change orientation with moving the product down a production line.

Combining the ability to change orientation of a product as it moves down a line may require some creative thinking. However, there is no limit to the types of production lines that can be  created.

Next How to improve the machine-operator interface

Terminology: A workstation is a work area set up for an individual person. The focus here is the industrial workbench or a production line, but a workstation can include a wide range of settings such as the work area for a machine operator or the cab for a heavy equipment operator. A workstation can be for sitting or standing work and can include surrounding items and features, such as the floor surface on which the individual stands.