Key Measures for Successful Improvements

Applying ergonomic principles can drive progress in safety while improving quality, decreasing cycle time, and reducing absenteeism.

ESTABLISHING and achieving performance and improvement goals are critical elements of any successful organization. The adage "what gets measured, gets done" is true for all operations of a business, especially managing ergonomic improvements. Within organizations, traditional safety measures of injury/illness reduction are typically the key measures for ergonomics success, but not the best ones to measure to drive improvements. Successful ergonomics programs are effective, efficient, compliant, and sustainable; proactive, scalable, and results-based measures specific to ergonomic improvements are a common element in such ergonomics programs.

Defining a common goal with a few focused measures is critical when establishing the foundation and direction of an ergonomics program, sustaining the effort, and being able to diagnose where improvements are needed. This article describes the effective use of measures to drive and sustain ergonomic improvements.

Goals, Plans, and Measures: Establishing a Common Direction
How do goals, plans, and measures relate to one another, and why are they critical for success? W. Edwards Deming stated, "If you can't describe what you are doing as a process, you don't know what you are doing." Ergonomics, and any health and safety process, must be managed with the same structure as any business or organization process.

Simply put, rolling out an ergonomics program without established improvement goals, plans for implementation, measures, and a method for tracking progress will not be sustained over time or achieve the intended results and value to the organization. Goals provide the end point (results) of your ergonomic improvement process. Measures provide the gauges with which to assess your progress and keep you on track toward achieving your goal.

A goal is the long-term statement of the desired result of the ergonomics program. It should be established by top management because it is a common goal for everyone in the organization, not just the safety department. This common goal is management's statement of "where we want to be." From the common goal, department-specific and people-specific goals can be developed, all helping to move the organization toward achieving the common goal. If the organization knows where it is now (the current situation) and where it wants to be (the goal), the next step is to develop the plan.

Plans describe "What we need to do to reach our goal." They include the timeline, individual actions, and activities in sequence; responsible individuals; and deadlines needed to meet the improvement goal. The plan provides a common road map so that many people (safety, engineering, managers, employees, etc.) know what they need to do and when they need to do it to reach the common goal. Once the road map or the plan has been developed, some key milestones, or measures, must be established to help determine whether the organization is moving toward the goal.

Measures are the indicators or milestones of progress toward achieving the plan and, ultimately, the goal of the organization. As milestones, they need to provide the individual person or departments with a reference point of their progress to the common goal, so the organization can continue to do the same things that are achieving results and make mid-course corrections for things that are not working as planned.

Types of Measures
Ergonomic and safety measures can be simply defined two ways: leading versus lagging, and activities versus results.

The contrast of leading versus lagging measures is proactive versus reactive. Another way to look at leading, proactive metrics is measuring the causes rather than the effects or consequences. Leading measures, like the level of ergonomic risk present in a workstation, are preferred because they allow you to predict and prevent the consequence (a work-related musculoskeletal disorder, or WMSD). Leading or proactive measures allow managers to identify conditions that could contribute to a WMSD and take action to prevent it, rather than wait for an injury or symptoms of an injury to occur.

Measures also can also be categorized as activity or results based. Each has an appropriate place during the process of implementing and sustaining an ergonomics program. Activity measures, such as the number of people trained, number of assessments completed, and number of new designs evaluated, are important to track during the implementation phase of a program. These measures provide a means for tracking the progress of an implementation plan. Measures of results, such as the percentage of workstations or new equipment/tools at low/no risk, provide a scalable measure of the effect (results) of the ergonomics program.

Traditional Safety Measures
Injury/illness rate, lost time, and cost of injuries are traditional safety measures used by organizations. The information is easy to track, readily available, and required for federal recordkeeping. Injury costs and lost time rates are easily obtained through the worker's compensation system. They provide a common method of comparing an organization's safety performance with that of similar industries. However, the benefits stop there. Using these traditional measures to drive an ergonomics program has severe limitations.

The injury/illness rate and cost are lagging and general measures. As a result, they do not allow for timely identification and prevention of the causes of WMSDs. In addition, injury/illness information does not provide managers or supervisors with information they can use to take action to prevent injury. Other limitations of injury/illness and loss measures are:

* Lag time of several months to years
* Not scalable to subgroups or departments
* Non-specific
* Dependent upon good investigation
* Do not necessarily reflect what is occurring today.

Used by itself to drive an ergonomics program, the traditional management goal of "reduce WMSD injuries to zero" is a plan for failure because it focuses efforts on watching and reacting to lagging indicators. Relying on this as the sole measure of an ergonomics program eliminates the opportunity for proactive improvement. But successful ergonomics programs rely on several proactive measures.

In addition to tracking WMSDs, there are five measures that help drive the implementation and sustainability of an ergonomics program. They are presented here in order of their importance:

1. Ergonomic Risk
By measuring and tracking the percent of workstations and jobs at a low/no level of risk, organizations can anticipate and prevent the causes of WMSDs in the workplace. Analogous to measuring and maintaining noise, respirable dust, or gas exposures below established thresholds, ergonomic risk factors can be measured and maintained at a low level. This is a proactive measure of results; by pursuing a risk-based, proactive ergonomics program, employers can recognize, evaluate, and control the workplace factors (equipment, job design, and work practices) that contribute to ergonomic risk factors. By identifying and tracking the presence or absence of these risk factors, exposures can be controlled and maintained proactively. The key is a quantifiable risk assessment methodology.

Many ergonomic risk assessment tools are available in the public and commercial domain. When selecting an assessment tool, look for these key features:

* Validity. Tool criteria is based on valid studies and data.
* Differentiation. It differentiates exposure to risk between jobs and within a job by body part.
* Reliability. It obtains similar results at different times, all other factors being equal. It must provide rigorous definition of hazard factors and the rules of application and be supported by an educational program that provides for assessor competency.
* Reproducibility. It obtains similar results on the same evaluation, by different assessors.
* Flexibility. It can be used in the majority of the organization's work scenarios.
* Efficiency. The value, results, or data that come from using the tool warrant the time and energy put into using it.

2. Productivity
Cycle time, throughput, Takt time, and output are all non-safety measures of work that benefit equally from ergonomic improvements. Typically, applying ergonomic principles benefits both the safety and productivity of an operation. The awkward postures, fatiguing forces, and/or unnecessary motions that can be identified as ergonomic risk factors are also identified as point-of-motion constraints and/or non-value-added activities through the concepts of Lean manufacturing. The impact of ergonomics on both safety and productivity should be measured equally. In addition, productivity measures provide immediate feedback on ergonomic improvements, demonstrate value to the bottom line, and help validate safety improvements realized through ergonomics.

Productivity is a proactive measure of results that is tracked in most organizations, but not as a result of ergonomic improvements.

3. Evaluation of New Equipment, Tools, and Processes
In parallel with Measure 4, Evaluation of Existing Workstations/Jobs, engineers, procurement personnel, and ergonomics team members must evaluate new equipment, tools, and processes to ensure that ergonomic risk factors are not being introduced into the workplace.

This is a proactive measure of activity. All (100 percent) new equipment, tools, and processes should be evaluated using industry-recognized ergonomic design criteria prior to purchase or fabrication of the equipment. In addition, a risk assessment should be completed before introducing the equipment into the manufacturing facility to verify that exposure to ergonomic risk factors has been reduced to an acceptable level prior to start-up.

4. Evaluation of Existing Workstations/Jobs
Identifying the presence, type, and level of ergonomic risk currently existing in the workplace is an essential step toward reducing risks in the workplace. Only by identifying where risk levels exceed an established threshold level (Measure 1, Ergonomic Risk) will engineers and ergonomics team members know where to focus their improvement efforts.

Tracking the activity of evaluating each aspect of the workplace to identify unacceptable levels of ergonomic risk is a proactive measure of activity.

5. Training
Early in the deployment of a new ergonomics program, or reinvestment in a stalled program, training is a critical element that provides individuals with the tools, capabilities, and confidence to fulfill their roles and responsibilities to support the program. These people may include the ergonomics process manager, ergonomics team members, or subject-matter experts; engineers and facilities; health care providers; worker's compensation/injury managers; supervisors and managers; and employees. To achieve the end goal of all workstations at a low level of risk, people must have the tools and ability to identify and control the ergonomic risks.

Initiating and tracking training efforts is a proactive measure of activity that establishes the ability to achieve the measurable activities that follow it.

Regardless of the metrics chosen, they must focus on and support the ultimate improvement goal; be easy to collect, collate, and report; and be easily understood by people throughout the organization. Metrics are most effective when individual managers, engineers, and departments can measure the direct impact of their contributions to achieving the organization's goal for the ergonomics program. The five suggested measures provide scalable metrics to track the progress from implementing an ergonomics program to formalizing a mature business process that is effective, efficient, compliant, and sustainable.

This article appeared in the January 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the January 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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