Reviving Your Program

Watch for needless or wasted motion, processes and procedures that can be improved, and equipment being used improperly or in need of upgrade.

The objective of any ergonomics program is to ensure that work areas and/or jobs that produce musculoskeletal injuries are identified, evaluated, and made more “worker friendly.” The procedures for selecting work areas and/or jobs for review are not new; however, they are precise and do produce results—fewer injuries, fewer employee complaints, and productivity improvements. Employee involvement and empowerment in the discovery and solution processes are essential elements to the success of a program.

The initial step in establishing a program is determining work areas and/or jobs to be targeted for evaluation. Consider several factors in the selection process:

• Work areas where new equipment and/or modified procedures are introduced

• Areas where there is poor work flow and/or frequent congestion or downtime

• Work areas with a history of ergonomic related injuries (back, wrist, elbow, etc.)

• Repetitive motion jobs (packaging, labeling, computer applications, and other tasks requiring frequent repetitive limb motions)

• Work areas where there is frequent property damage and/or equipment downtime caused by equipment operators

• Work areas where environmental conditions, such as light, heat, noise, dust, and more, are contributing to a lack of productivity and/or injuries

Evaluations should focus on individual jobs or workstations to ensure all aspects of the work process are considered. Avoid taking a “big picture look” at the entire work area, because this often produces no meaningful information. Give particular attention to “evaporative work practices” that occur when adjustments to the regular work routine are necessary. Such adjustments are always worker initiated as the consequence of a failed procedure. Without a specific objective, it is impossible to conduct an effective evaluation.

Work Area Observation The observation process requires the ability to identify needless or wasted motion, processes and procedures that can be improved, tools or other equipment being used improperly or in need of upgrade, poor or unsafe work practices, and overall worker attitude. The process is time consuming because it seeks to draw conclusions about the causes of ergonomic deficiencies.

Use checklists or other means to assist in tabulating your findings and developing work profiles. The critical element is determining why work is being performed in the manner that you observed. The basic steps in the observation process should be sequenced as follows:

• Select the work area to be observed.

• Focus on a single job or group of similar jobs being performed within the work area.

• Take time to observe all aspects of the work being performed.

• Identify job steps or routines that can be improved.

• Pay specific attention to housekeeping conditions and to materials and/or equipment that may seem out of place.

• Discuss findings with the individual worker(s) without divulging conclusions.

Ask questions and obtain answers; workers should identify areas where improvements and changes are needed. Be certain to discuss all out-of-place items, which are usually at the root cause of evaporative unsafe acts (i.e., chance taking).

The worker always has a reason for performing his or her way. Workers are responsible for doing the work, they are the most susceptible to injury, and their opinions and ideas are critical to the development of effective ergonomic solutions. Minor changes such as new hand tools, proper job instruction, and workstation modification usually can correct ergonomic problems and reduce injury exposure. Involving workers in the discovery process creates ownership and ensures ergonomic changes will be accepted when implemented.

One on One or Team Approach? You can accomplish worker involvement one on one immediately after each observation or through the development of Ergonomic Review Teams. The value of the one on one approach is confined to the immediate situation; teams can be used as a training opportunity that can sensitize workers to ergonomic issues and create additional ergonomic “eyes and ears” in the work area.

When the latter alternative is selected, team members must have full management support. Effective training must be provided, worker empowerment must be encouraged, teams must develop and present recommendations to management, and management must be receptive to change.

Management must identify areas for evaluation before teams are chosen. Use the previously outlined methods for selection and review job descriptions, injury records and trends, worker’s comp costs, absentee rates, and other pertinent criteria. It may help to consult with your insurance provider. Develop a formal training agenda with specific objectives.

A typical training agenda might include critical discussions and methods for evaluating the following work issues:

General work flow and congestion: Can the flow be improved?

Hand tools: Are they adequate? Are workers properly trained in their use?

Work procedures: Do they force workers into “evaporative acts”?

Man/machine relationships: Are work adjustments made to accommodate machinery? Do workers have the ability to control their work routine?

Repetitive motion tasks: Are all steps required to complete the work?

Materials being used: Are all materials needed? Are they safe?

Environmental controls: Is the work area too noisy? Too hot? Is the lighting adequate?

Obviously, there are many additional considerations. They should always be related to the work areas targeted for evaluation.

Review Teams Procedures Training sessions should be sufficient in duration (usually, 60 minutes) to allow for active discussion from all team members. The team leader should be a management member, and discussions should be limited to the session’s subject. Consider using insurance providers, equipment sales personnel, and subject experts for these sessions. Encourage workers to participate and to provide opinions and recommendations. The team leader should document all suggestions.

Choose team members based on the work areas for evaluation; the most vocal (pro or con), most knowledgeable, most popular, or any other criterion should be considered for inclusion. Team members must be advised of the team’s purpose, the training schedule, all objectives and requirements, and their eventual role in the ergonomic evaluation process. The process of determining what is best in the workplace is difficult to accomplish without meaningful worker involvement and a strong management commitment to the team’s purpose: developing “ergonomically sensitive workers” who can identify ineffective man/machine and process/procedure mismatches; establishing communication opportunities that encourage frequent discussion of ergonomic issues with supervisors; and allowing meaningful suggestions to be made that will prevent downtime, material damage, and/or injury before the incidents occur.

Periodic progress reports must be made so team members are aware of ergonomic changes resulting from their recommendations. Using work area managers during discussion periods is most helpful. Have a team member present recommendations that require significant capital investment or workstation modifications to management during the final session and outline specific details of the impact of ergonomic improvements on productivity and anticipated costs. Management support functions (purchasing, engineering, production planning, etc.) should help in developing the presentation, but team members must take the lead in preparing and presenting final conclusions to management for approval. Participants must also believe management will follow through on proposed recommendations.

The training concludes when the final report is made. Team members must be advised on a scheduled basis of progress in implementing their recommendations to ensure their continued interest. To maintain workers’ focus and motivation, encourage new ideas and establish and monitor revised work standards.

There should always be an open door policy for reporting ergonomic suggestions when the training concludes and the team is disbanded. Additional teams should be developed as needed to evaluate work flow/workstation design and to ensure the continued development of an ergonomically sensitive workforce.

Finally, always remember that ergonomics is best practiced when workers understand and participate in the development of objectives and when management is responsive to recommendations.

This article originally appeared in the July 2008 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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