Critical Success Factors for Ergonomics Processes

Treat the ergonomics process as you would a new piece of equipment. Take the time to learn how it works; periodically perform preventative maintenance.

SUCCESSFUL companies perceive ergonomics as a business process, not a program. They engage workers in the job improvement process and provide the guidance and coaching workers need to be successful.

Successful ergonomics processes address the multiple factors that contribute to ergonomics-related injuries, not just the physical ergonomics risks. Benefits to this approach include increased employee involvement, job satisfaction, morale, improved jobs, more efficient production, and better quality.

Too often, ergonomics activities in an organization are isolated efforts in Engineering, Safety, or Human Resources and not integrated into business operations. While these programs may satisfy some basic compliance requirements, success is limited.

What Employers Can Do

  • Evaluate the physical hazards in jobs done by people who report MSDs. Taking a proactive approach is even better. Evaluate jobs that workers recommend (i.e., ones they complain about), jobs with high turnover, and/or others you think may have some ergonomics risks.
  • Consider psychosocial risk factors--low job satisfaction, monotonous work, etc. Talk with workers, conduct opinion surveys to identify system issues that may produce these pressures.
  • Address physical and psychosocial risks through engineering improvements, system changes, or work practice changes.
  • Create a compelling place to work by involving workers in business processes (mentoring, coaching, encouraging ideas, giving credit and recognition).
  • Involve workers in the job improvement process to reduce physical ergonomics risks and to increase job satisfaction.
  • Engage workers in wellness activities to reduce the risks of personal factors and increase job satisfaction.
  • Involve workers in citizenship and family safety and health promotion activities to improve their health and demonstrate a caring environment.

Worker Engagement
Why should you involve workers in the ergonomics improvement process? You need their help. Capitalize on their energy, creative talents, and time to identify and address the multiple factors increasing their exposure. Involving employees also may reduce psychosocial risk factors for ergonomics injuries.

Business legends Edward Deming and Frederick Herzberg recognized the value of employee input. Deming said, "Individuals should be engaged in their work in a way to promote self-esteem and pride in their jobs," Herzberg reported in his popular article in the Harvard Business Review, "Workers are motivated by achievement, recognition and the work itself."

Engaging employees in ergonomics improvement initiatives provides an ideal opportunity to address both the physical and psychosocial risk factors of work. The process itself is just as important as the product.

There are many ways to involve workers in the job improvement process:

  • Suggestion programs
  • Training
  • Observation & feedback
  • Reviewing new designs
  • Conducting job assessments
  • Visiting neighboring and sister sites, and
  • Participation in problem-solving sessions.

Putting it All Together: Critical Success Factors
A report on critical success factors, published by John Hidley and Kristen Seymour, described seven elements of successful quality and safety processes. These had been identified through review of literature on quality implementations in the 1980s and 1990s and a study of behavior-based safety initiatives in that same period.

These seven principles are vital for any improvement process and are certainly applicable to ergonomics. These are the seven critical success factors (Hidley, J.H., (1998). Critical success factors for behavior-based safety. Professional Safety, 43(7), 30-34):
1. Use a process blueprint.
2. Emphasize communication and buy-in.
3. Demonstrate leadership (management and labor).
4. Assure implementation team competence.
5. Use action-oriented training.
6. Use data for continuous improvement.
7. Provide appropriate technical resources.

Step one: Use a process blueprint.
A project plan including goals, objectives, and activities should be developed before embarking on an ergonomics initiative. This process blueprint should include a problem statement, including the leading indicators that tell you what the problems are. It may be as simple as, "We don't know where our problems are, but we think we may have some so our goal is to find out the extent of our problems." The plan should include the expected activities that will need to take place to meet the objectives of the implementation and sustain the ergonomics initiative. Roles and responsibilities of the groups involved in the ergonomics effort, including those of an implementation team, should be identified.

Step two: Emphasize communication and buy-in.
Groups and individuals that are critical to support for an ergonomics initiative should be identified before embarking on the new program. Anyone who is asked to be directly involved and/or provide resources will require information about the ergonomics effort. Questions they will want answered include:

  • Why are we being asked to do this? Injury history? Exposure? Company initiative?
  • What's involved? How long will it take? What do I have to do?
  • What's in it for me? What's in it for us?

Anticipate possible resistance and plan for it. Assess readiness. Determine what information needs to be shared right away and what is the best mechanism to do so. Form a plan for providing ongoing communication about the ergonomics process, including what information will be shared, how it will be shared, and how often.

Step three: Demonstrate leadership.
The workforce will be more likely to buy into the ergonomics process if they see visible examples that there is support from site leaders. Leaders (managers, team leaders, supervisors, union personnel, or other committee leaders) must take an active role. Visible actions that leaders might do include writing or speaking about the program to others or participating in ergonomics assessments, training sessions, and problem-solving sessions.

Step four: Assure implementation team competence.
Successful ergonomics programs are directed by a team of individuals who are responsible for carrying out the project plan. Roles of the team may include conducting ergonomics assessments, delivering training, or problem-solving. Team members will require initial training and coaching to enhance their skills. If a new team is formed for this purpose, its members may benefit from team building and other assistance about how teams operate at the site.

A poorly facilitated team that lacks the knowledge and skills to perform its responsibilities will stall or destroy the ergonomics effort. Team skills needed include facilitation, problem-solving, conflict resolution, program management, presentation skills, computer use, and organizational function (how things get done). Team members should be exposed to other tools the site uses for problem analysis and problem-solving, including 5S, six sigma, etc. They should be exposed to ergonomic risk identification tools and trained to conduct and/or interpret ergonomic assessments.

Step five: Use action-oriented training.
Ergonomics is a hands-on, eyes-on activity. Awareness training might begin in the classroom, but individuals responsible for conducting ergonomics assessments or reviewing job designs need practical training. Conducting quality ergonomic assessments includes analytical skills as well as communication skills.

Even a degreed ergonomist needs practice when using new tools. Hands-on training, including field practice, is critical for success with these new skills, as is coaching for improvement. Identify the different groups that require training and provide appropriate level of information and exercises: employees, team members, management, and others. Training requires follow-up to ensure that people are applying the new skills and knowledge.

Step six: Use data for continuous improvement.
Ergonomics solutions may be costly or time-consuming to implement. A hit-and-miss strategy of upgrading equipment or systems will yield limited results. Resources should be focused on data-based problems (i.e., ones identified through ergonomic assessments, injury data, or documented worker complaints).

Once a problem is identified and analyzed, specific potential solutions should be evaluated objectively for their effectiveness. Use data to quantify problems. Multiple sources of information (data) may be indicative of an ergonomics problem. Evaluate and select the best solutions using problem-solving tools.

Step seven: Provide appropriate technical resources.
Ergonomics problems may be simple but can be complex, requiring technical analysis and creative problem-solving. There are many resources available to supplement an in-house ergonomics program, including videos, product catalogs, training workbooks, and informational pamphlets. Technical expertise in ergonomics also can be found from insurance carriers, local medical providers, universities, local and national safety councils, and private consulting organizations. Many Web sites contain ergonomics information, including OSHA's www.osha.gov.

Ergonomics As a Process
There should not be a finite start and end of your ergonomics effort. A deliberate, smooth integration into existing systems from the start reduces stress on the organization and may improve buy-in. Perceiving ergonomics as the way business is done--rather than this year's focus, a flavor of the month--will yield better results and support.

Treat the ergonomics process as you would a new piece of equipment or a new manufacturing process. Maximize the output of the investment by taking the time to learn how it works; tinker with the machine to adapt it to your needs. Periodically perform preventative maintenance. Keep up with technology (in this case, information) and be prepared to upgrade your "machine" (process) to achieve optimum results.

Protect your investment and the payoff will be substantial. Ergonomics is more than controlling hazards and reducing injuries. An effective ergonomics process will improve efficiency and quality of operations, increase worker comfort, and decrease stress to the individuals and to the company.

This article originally appeared in the June 2003 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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