Occupational Health & Safety

Five Changing Trends in Managing Workplace Ergonomics

Traditionally, safety professionals have driven ergonomic improvements in an effort to reduce injuries, but all along they have been the wrong people to do this.

Improving workplace ergonomics continues to be a major issue for employers and a key element of most EHS programs today. Looking back over the past 30 years, it is interesting to see the trends and changes in how workplace ergonomics is managed. We’ve learned a lot about what works and what does not. These lessons are being adopted by, and benefitting, leading companies. This article describes five key trends in ergonomics program management.

Occupational ergonomics continues to emerge as one of the priority workplace issues addressed by employers today. This is driven primarily by the need to reduce musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). In our recent benchmarking study, we found that participants attributed between 24 and 75 percent of injuries to poor ergonomic conditions. This rate has remained relatively consistent over the past several studies. Most companies attribute the high incidence of MSDs to:

  • Reduction of other types of injuries. As a result of programs focused on reducing and eliminating mechanical, electrical, and chemical hazards, MSDs are emerging as a priority issue.
  • Increased work demand on individual employees. This is typically attributed to workforce downsizing, production rate changes, cost constraints, and "doing more with less."
  • Aging workforce. Some companies attribute their MSDs to the capabilities, conditioning, and condition of both older and younger workers.

The bottom line is that ergonomics in the workplace is an issue that most companies must address. This may be driven by the need to prevent injuries, improve productivity, retain employees, or comply with local, state/province, or country requirements. Fortunately, there are proven tools and methods available today to effectively and efficiently improve workplace ergonomics.

1. Getting Proactive
Fifteen to 30 years ago, the focus of most ergonomics programs was on MSD injuries, and the approach was reactive. Early programs used symptoms and injuries as a measure of problem and success, used qualitative tools, and tended to react to injuries and employee complaints.

Today, leading companies are proactive. They use quantitative tools to measure exposure to MSD risk factors and then focus their efforts on changing the job conditions to reduce the level of exposure—before an injury occurs. This shift is significant; as established ergonomics programs mature, they become more efficient and effective.

As ergonomics program management matures, organizations shift from managing the consequences to managing the causes.

2. Integrating the Process
Companies with effective ergonomics programs tend to manage ergonomics as a process that is aligned with, or integrated into, existing improvement processes. These improvement processes may include Lean Manufacturing, Six Sigma, Continuous Improvement, and Safety Management Systems. When OSHA released the Ergonomics Program Management Guideline for Meatpacking Plants in 1990, it provided the first structure for the elements of an ergonomics program. It was the right direction and structure needed at the time, but it was a collection of individual program elements that were not tied together. Since then, business, quality, and EHS leaders have adopted the principles of continuous improvement to move from a program to a process approach. NIOSH's Elements of Ergonomics Programs (1997) began to link these elements into a logical flow.

The shift to managing as a process engages people across an organization, ensures that the processes are sustainable as time, leaders, and business needs change, integrates the processes into the business and ensures that they are not dependent upon a few people, and provides a logical system for determining and driving improvement.

This shift from program to process mentality within EHS management is illustrated by the environmental and safety management systems (ISO 14001, OHSAS 18001, ANSI Z10). This approach has been applied to managing ergonomics by AIHA in Ergonomics Program Guidance Document Aligned with ANSI/AIHA Z10-2005 and by CSA in its Z1004-12 standard, Workplace Ergonomics — A Management and Implementation Standard.

As a program matures, leading companies transition to an integrated process that is aligned with continuous and ongoing improvement.

3. Engaging Others and Shifting Ownership
As previously stated, ergonomics processes engage people at all levels of the organization, from the site manager to individual employees. Each person has clearly defined roles that collectively reduce MSD risk factors in the workplace. Ergonomics programs traditionally depended on site "experts" who typically were EHS staff members. That model has changed. Successful organizations expand ownership, involvement, and accountability for ergonomics to people outside the EHS staff.

Employee involvement and management leadership are two critical elements of safety and environmental management systems; they are also critical components of a successful ergonomics process. Employees typically get involved in several ways: They can adjust their own workstations, become members of an ergonomics or safety team involved in assessing and improving conditions, or participate in a Kaizen event. More than 64 percent of benchmarked companies establish and train employee teams so they have the skills to conduct assessments and make workplace changes to improve ergonomics.

A major change in the management of ergonomics over the past decade has been the shift of ownership from EHS to Engineering. Traditionally, safety professionals have driven ergonomic improvements in an effort to reduce injuries, but all along they have been the wrong people to do this. Ergonomics is an engineering discipline. NIOSH defines occupational ergonomics as "the science of fitting workplace conditions and job demands to the capabilities of the working population." The responsibility for designing workstations, processes, tools, and workflow resides with engineers (process, industrial, and facilities engineers, as well as space planners and product designers). All of the engineers I've worked with had some form of ergonomics in their university education but had not been asked to include design for people in the workplace. Leading companies realize this untapped resource, as well as the misaligned ownership.

At leading companies, the Operations or Engineering group owns ergonomics. Of the benchmarked companies, 25 percent reported the ergonomics process was owned and led by Operations/Engineering (rather than Safety). Another 36 percent were in the process of shifting ownership to Operations/Engineering.

4. Moving Upstream
Consistently addressing ergonomics in the design phase of new processes, equipment, layouts, and products is a common practice of advanced organizations. About 5 percent of all organizations are at this level. They are able to achieve this by using a common and consistent phase gate review process, standard design guidelines for ergonomics (reach, force, work height, weight limits, etc.), and a system for holding engineers accountable for quality (level of MSD risk factors).

The greatest value of good upstream design is the reduced cost of making changes. The cost of changing equipment and layout once it is in place is more than 1,000 times the cost of making the change in the design phase.

Progressive leading companies have integrated design criteria in their phase gate review process and hold projects and people accountable for designing workplaces and tasks with low exposure to MSD risk factors.

5. Addressing the Office
Back in the 1980s, the accepted practices for addressing office ergonomics were in-person evaluations by EHS staff, chair fitting rooms, lots of custom solutions for each person, and classroom training. Thirty years later, we are a bit smarter:

  • There is less dependency on in-person assessments.
  • Workstations and chairs have a full range of adjustability.
  • Office workstation design is based on computer use.
  • Employee training focuses on enabling people to assess and adjust their own workstations.

The biggest trend in managing office ergonomics has been the movement toward employee-driven assessments and workplace changes. By providing online training and self-assessments, employers are enabling and empowering individuals to take the first steps in adjusting their workstations to fit them. The use of online office ergonomics software and tools has increased from 27 percent to more than 50 percent in the past two years.

Common Issues and Barriers
In addition to these common trends, we’ve identified two common challenges with managing ergonomics that companies at all levels of program maturity have experienced.

Funding for training and engineering solutions is the largest and most common challenge identified by more than 90 percent of companies. In some situations, funding is not available when workplace changes are needed, and in many cases, the issue is that people (engineers, ergonomics team members, etc.) do not know the process for obtaining funding. The key lesson here is to understand and define whether and how funding will be available for ergonomic improvements. If funding is not available, the organization is not prepared for success.

The second-most-common challenge is failure to use or meet established ergonomic design standards. These standards might include office furniture and layout, limits to manual lifting, and geometry of the tools and workstations. If they are provided but not used, the improvement process will continue to introduce poor tool and workstation designs, which later require teams to put in time and effort to assess and fix them reactively.

As EHS professionals, we must continue to leverage new research, technology, methods, and business practices to help employers provide workstations and tasks that are designed to reduce employee wear and tear. We've learned a lot during the past 30 years, and we'll continue to learn more and improve the application of ergonomics in the next 30.

This article originally appeared in the October 2012 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Walt Rostykus, CPE, CIH, CSP, is a vice president and ergonomics engineer for Humantech, Inc. of Ann Arbor, Mich. Since 1979, the company has assisted companies throughout North America in successful ergonomics initiatives in a variety of workplace settings including production and assembly, offices, and laboratories. For information, visit www.humantech.com.

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