Creating an Effective Ergonomics Program
With the right assessment, training, management support, and processes in place, you can proactively identify and eliminate ergonomic issues before they result in debilitating injuries.
Ergonomics has emerged as a major environmental, health and safety (EHS) concern. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' most recent data, work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs)—including carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, and other sprains and strains—account for one-third of days-away-from-work cases. The same data also reveal that workers suffering from ergonomics-related injuries often require more time off the job than those with other types of workplace injuries and illnesses.
In addition to absenteeism, work-related MSDs come with a steep financial cost. OSHA statistics indicate that MSD-related workers' compensation expenses cost businesses between $15 billion and $20 billion each year. What’s more, the Institute of Medicine estimates the total economic burden to companies resulting from workplace MSDs—including both the loss of work and compensation costs—to be as high as $54 billion annually.
By putting greater emphasis on ergonomics, employers can help ensure worker safety and avoid the costs associated with decreased employee productivity and time lost due to injuries. With the right assessment, training, management support, and processes in place, you can proactively identify and eliminate ergonomic issues before they result in debilitating injuries.
Below are some best practices for applying an effective ergonomics program in your workplace.
Assess the Ergonomics Risk
While industries with the highest occupational risk—including health care, construction, warehousing, and manufacturing—often experience the highest rates of MSDs, employees who spend long periods of time in office or laboratory work environments are at considerable risk. For these individuals, on top of the risk of MSDs, sedentary behaviors and static postures have been known to cause metabolic syndrome, a cluster of conditions—including increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels—that occur together to increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.
The bottom line is that MSDs affect workers in almost every occupation and industry in the nation and in workplaces of all sizes. Whether you have employees lifting heavy objects, doing repetitive tasks along a production line, or sitting for long hours at a computer workstation, they are at risk for developing MSDs or other related health issues.
Many employers wait until employees develop MSD symptoms before deploying an ergonomics training. However, an ergonomics program is most effective before issues arise. And because MSDs and other health issues related to poor ergonomics often happen over time, it’s critical to find a ergonomics solution sooner than later to prevent any new or additional injuries from occurring.
Find Training That Fits
Ergonomics is the practice of fitting a job to a person. As such, it's also critical that you select ergonomics training that fits your workers. Fortunately, there are a number of ergonomics training solutions to suit a variety of organizational characteristics, including number of employees, multiple office locations, and budget constraints.
When computers first started appearing on office desks in the early 1980s, an army of ergonomics specialists stepped forward to address issues on a one-to-one basis. Group training sessions and desk-side meetings were the norm, and specialists often met individually with each employee to provide ergonomics training, personal assessments, and to modify workstation layout. While this method still exists today, face-to-face trainings are costly for organizations with a large, diverse workforce or multiple distributed locations.
Web-based ergonomics training offers a more flexible and effective option for these types of organizations. Advancements in technology have opened new avenues to better reach, train, and interact with large or distributed workforces. Once considered a novelty, these communication platforms have since changed the way we do business. Effective ergonomics requires more than just training, and web technologies offer a rich, interactive experience that keeps employees engaged and allows them to complete and repeat the training at their own convenience. Individualized web-based training also has been shown to achieve greater levels of learning retention compared to face-to-face desk-side or even in-person group training. Furthermore, today's online options reach a wider range of employees for the same cost as hiring an expert to meet with just a few individuals for a short amount of time, resulting in a greater ROI for the entire organization.
Practice Ongoing Assessment for Continuous Improvement
Continuous improvement isn't just another corporate buzz-phrase, but a strategy embraced by companies that value the sustainability of their business. As such, continuous improvement—a process of applying incremental changes to eliminate risks and inefficiencies—should be the cornerstone of your ergonomics program.
For many organizations, continuous improvement occurs at both the employee and program management level. At the employee level, this starts with self-assessment. A good web-based ergonomics training solution tracks employee progress and automatically alerts them to unresolved issues so they can continue to work on improvements over time. It's critical that employees track their progress; otherwise, employers have no way to measure the success of their ergonomics program.
At the program management level, monitoring individual employee assessments and training progress will help to identify any barriers to the success of the entire program. For example, if a number of employees are unable to attend in-person training sessions, it might be a good idea to look into web-based training solutions to reach these individuals. A good online solution will allow you to escalate cases to an expert for consultation and in-person help if necessary. In either case, monitoring and assessment will help to determine what improvements need to be made and where, while also identifying any risk factors that have the potential to become persistent issues and costly injury claims down the line.
A Final Word
In today's complex EHS landscape, it's easy for organizations to overlook ergonomics as a risk management priority. Yet studies have shown significant gains in productivity and employee job satisfaction with the introduction of an effective office ergonomics program. The Washington State Department of Labor & Industries and the Puget Sound Human Factors and Ergonomics Society analyzed 250 such studies and discovered that, on average, introduction of an office ergonomics program lowered workplace MSDs by 61 percent. Pursuing an effective ergonomics program is a proven means of reducing the costs and consequences of ergonomics-related injuries.
Organizations must remember that effective ergonomics training is an ongoing practice. It is human nature to fall back into old, often bad habits that can result in MSDs. Employees should understand that ongoing training offers long-term benefits for their overall health and productivity, while organizations must recognize that the proven reductions in absenteeism and turnover rates alone justify an investment in ergonomics training.
Good ergonomics also offers a few less tangible yet equally important benefits. An effective ergonomics program improves employees' engagement while promoting responsibility and accountability for their own health and well-being with tools that encourage regular self-assessment and continuous ergonomics improvement. These benefits are reason enough for companies pursuing employee wellness, sustainability, or world-class organizational goals to implement a more effective ergonomics program.
This article originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.