Leveraging Technology to Drive Workplace Ergonomics
Facilitating an effective and sustainable ergonomics process does not have to be pen-and-paper, old-fashioned and outdated.
- By Josiah Allen
- Jun 01, 2020
Just as methods for long-distance communication have changed over the years, so have those used to facilitate an effective and sustainable ergonomics process. Where we were once restricted with face-to-face and pen-to-paper techniques, remote work and easy-to-use assessment methods make the development and maintenance of a top-tier ergonomics team more attainable than ever. This article will share some key changes in technology that apply specifically to maintaining an effective ergonomics process and how to leverage those changes to mitigate musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) risk factors, injuries and costs at both the micro and macro level.
There are three primary components that fit together to create an effective ergonomics process:
- Learning—the methods by which people understand what ergonomics is, what it is not and how they can improve jobs by applying ergonomics principles
- Doing—the process and methods by which people quantify MSD risk factors and engage employees
- Managing—the methods by which people quantify risk reduction and track return on investment
Technological advances have made access to these three components easier than ever, allowing everyone in an organization to be involved with the ergonomics process, thus making the likelihood of success much higher.
Workplace training has evolved throughout the years with increased access to technology and better understanding about how adults learn. While traditional training focused on telling people, research is showing—and actions are proving—that the best way for learning to have a sustained impact is to make lessons self-paced and action-oriented.
Compare higher education 20 years ago versus today: lecture-style learning meant students scratched notes in shorthand to be reviewed later when studying key concepts, while today’s classrooms increasingly rely on online videos, interactive quizzes and podcasts to enhance learning and knowledge retention.
The diversity of learning tools isn’t the only advancement we have been able to leverage over the years. Health and safety professionals understand that doing more with less has become the mantra of most companies, and “lean” is a common term. But until recently, most of the education provided to employees required hiring a subject matter expert to come on site and deliver the message. This method limits the size of the audience, and it can be inconsistent, time-consuming and costly. What if the roots of a lesson are flawed or, at the end of the day, are misunderstood? Relying on a small group of trained individuals to develop an ergonomics process and pass along knowledge themselves can have unintended negative consequences. Rolling out a flawed approach or communicating incorrect key learnings can set organizations back several years and leave them with poor data, ineffective team members, and extra costs to correct the process.
Online training has a high impact, reaches a larger audience and decreases costs significantly. The biggest benefit is that it enables audiences to learn in a way that works for them. Reading, hearing and controlling the pace, all in the learner’s preferred language, improves retention. Reinforcing key learnings with touch-point quizzes and reviewing content whenever questions arise are benefits of the digital age. The result is a standard set of lessons that overcomes many of the obstacles organizations face when relying on in-person trainings. Online training allows an organization to internalize the knowledge transfer process and sustain knowledge acquisition.
This doesn’t mean online training is enough. Just as we don’t all have the same taste in music, we don’t all learn the same way. “The percentage of U.S. companies using online learning hit 77 percent in 2017” (Global Industry Analysists, Inc. 2017). Still, the Center for Creative Leadership says, “research shows that even when video-based training is well designed, it is effective only about 20 percent of the time.”
The answer to this issue lies in Charles Jennings’ 70:20:10 blended learning approach. Jennings describes how, in high performers, only 10 percent of their skills come through formal training. Twenty percent comes from having supportive managers, colleagues and others to help when needed, and the lion’s share comes from doing. Those who spend most of their learning time doing consistently out-perform others. Practice makes perfect.
One reported difficulty with developing an ergonomics process is determining how to attack the problem of MSD risk factors. With hundreds of jobs and thousands of unique direct causes, there is a need to be efficient and accurate when assessing jobs. The ability to fully leverage a team of trained employees and end with good data and clear, effective interventions continues to be a challenge for many organizations.
Over time, assessment methods and available equipment have changed drastically. Physical pen-and-paper techniques used to be all we had, and while they are still used heavily today, we’ve drastically shifted from physical to digital. When I was in school and learning about surface and intramuscular EMG, at the time, the only way to get good data was to have someone surrounded by wires, which restricts movement, makes motion awkward and limits the environment and task that can be assessed. Now there are dozens of battery-powered devices that can release information wirelessly to mobile devices.
Mapping and analyzing motion data during real-world work used to be impossible. With advances in artificial intelligence and computer vision, we can now simply record a video using a phone and use software to map all the joint angles in a fraction of the time, with exponentially more accuracy. As a result, we can spend more time on what really matters: engaging with employees and implementing improvements to mitigate MSD risk factors.
As research advances, so do quantitative evaluation methods. While it is important for some to understand the theory of how tools like the NIOSH Lifting Equation calculate their outputs, those details are not necessary for many users. If you want to make ergonomics accessible to everyone, don’t bog them down with understanding unnecessary and difficult assessment method concepts. Just as we use ergonomics to enable employees to have the most impact while working within their capabilities, technology can function in the same way by automating complex tools and providing simple-to-understand, actionable insights.
Mobile assessment methods require far less training than pen-and-paper methods, which opens up the possibility of making ergonomics everyone’s job. Instead of just relying on a handful of experts across a site or corporation, we can begin to both educate and involve everyone in not just interacting with a solution but also developing it.
Once the bones of a solution are developed, having easy, online access to research-based design guidelines removes the trial and error of typical interventions, and tracking in-process and completed improvements allows ergonomics teams to avoid reinventing the wheel.
Software drastically improves assessments and access to data, creates consistency and enhances communication across the organization. Tracking adherence to the process helps companies scale it to fit their needs. Well-designed software guides users to input data in a consistent manner and enables interpretation of that information without requiring additional training or extensive discussion with the original assessor. As a result, it’s easier to identify process gaps and opportunities and to determine the best way to address them. The standardized approach and database then shift valuable collaboration time from sharing issues to solving them.
This revolutionized ability to share information gives sites, regions and corporations a central access point from which to retrieve the data in their own time. Ergonomics process owners can easily monitor team activities, track status of improvements, monitor progress to goal and generate custom scorecards that enable them to measure success. Now, not only do we have the numbers, but we can organize them into ways in which everyone can easily and consistently view them. We can take data points and communicate key information while ensuring everyone is interpreting the data reliably, and we can continuously refine the methods of reporting and retrieval to make the data even more accessible over time.
Good data provides better information. When you collect and interpret information, you gain knowledge. Knowledge allows you to identify actionable items to help solve problems in an effective and efficient manner.
While there are many factors that influence the success of an ergonomics process, we can control many of them by using technology to improve ease and efficiency. Enabling adults to learn the way they learn best—at their own pace, on their preferred devices and with on-the-floor practice to solidify their theoretical learnings—encourages the “use it or lose it” skills and helps them share what they learn with colleagues. Standardizing an efficient assessment process through structured methods and organizing results into meaningful data enables us to show trends and use the balance of time for value-added problem solving. The ability to track and sort assessments, direct causes and recommendations easily enables teams to standardize best practices, identify gaps in current processes and leverage trends and metrics to clearly show the impact of the ergonomics team.
All of these aspects function together to build an effective, sustainable ergonomics process, which maximizes time on the most important element: implementing sustainable improvements to enhance the lives of workers.
This article originally appeared in the June 2020 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.