I have a confession. While typing this article, I have one eye on the World Cup game. I am captivated by the world's most popular game: soccer.
The best players from each country are brought together to compete, and their patriotism swells the hearts of viewers from all around the world.
By the time you read this, the competition will be over. One team will have played better than all the rest. One team [Germany] will have won the ultimate trophy.
What I find most interesting about the World Cup is that even though different teams (i.e. different countries and cultures) play the game with slightly different tactics and approaches, the desired result is the same: putting the ball in the back of the net.
It occurs to me that all EHS professionals – regardless of industry, geographic location or age of the workforce – share the same goal for their ergonomics initiatives: to reduce musculoskeletal disorders. This is due to the fact that strains, sprains and overexertion injuries typically are the most prevalent types of injuries across all industries, in terms of cost and number of incidents.
However, improvements in injury statistics often lag because companies get paralyzed with how to apply a standard, off-the-shelf ergonomics process to their unique work environment. Just like the different teams in the World Cup use different techniques and styles to score a goal, so must companies "tweak" the strategic and tactical elements of their assessment tools and methodology to fit their specific industries. Regardless of the tweaks, however, the ultimate goal is the same – nobody gets hurt.
But We're Different!
When I am invited to speak to companies about the key elements in launching and sustaining an ergonomics initiative, the audiences that struggle the most are those who do not have "traditional" manufacturing environments. Perhaps their workforce primarily is made up of non-assembly-line jobs such as laboratory technicians, maintenance mechanics, mobile sales reps, field service technicians or stock pickers in a distribution warehouse. Despite their differences, the one thing many of these employers have in common is that they believe traditional ergonomics doesn't apply to them. When asked why, I hear a variety of reasons. Some include:
- "Our jobs aren't repetitive. We don't have standard assembly lines."
- "We can't control our work environment. Our field people are at the mercy of our client sites, the weather, etc."
- "We have a couple of really physical jobs, but they are only done once in a while."
- "We don't do the same thing every day. We might run one particular job for a week, and then again in three months."
Do any of these reasons sound familiar? I often find that ergonomics initiatives in companies like these are not well-focused or formalized, and the initiatives have not resulted in a consistent or significant decline in strains and sprains.
Regardless of what your work environment looks like, there are two fundamental truths with respect to ergonomics:
- Ergonomic risk is measured in a standard way against documented exposures to thresholds for force, frequency and posture.
- Design changes to the working environment and work process (machinery, tooling, etc.) are the only way to lower the measurable level of ergonomic risk. Getting a fit, healthy person to do a physically demanding job does not change the overall risk level of that operation.
When a company finds it challenging to apply a baseline quantitative measure of ergonomic risk, it usually is dependent on administrative controls (e.g. job rotation) or various wellness initiatives (e.g. stretching or employee fitness) to reduce injury rates. Of course, these are important parts of an overall corporate program; however, they don't contain the important elements of the fundamental truths above.
In my experience, companies can get distracted by figuring out how to accurately assess their jobs using traditional means, rather than making the necessary tweaks to allow an ergonomic improvement process to integrate with their existing culture (lean, Six Sigma, engineering). It's the epitome of "paralysis by analysis." To refer to the soccer example once again, shouldn't the style of play be familiar to the players?
So what specific tweaks are required? Well, first determine what kind of work environment you have. Consider that occupations are divided into two main categories: 1) Those that have control over the design of their work environment (e.g. factory, warehouse, office and laboratory), and 2) Those that don't (e.g. sales reps, field service techs and delivery/distribution drivers).
Beyond the Office and the Assembly Line
To illustrate the difference between the two types of occupations, and the flexibility required, consider the following two industry examples:
Delivery and distribution – Over the last 10 years, we have seen an increased interest in assessing ergonomics issues that are specific to route delivery, distribution centers and warehouses. In my opinion, no other industry better represents a combination of the two categories described above.
On one hand, the warehouse, shipping station and loading dock are relatively well-defined and predictable in terms of ergonomic risk exposure. Traditional assessment tools and design guidelines have been effectively utilized to recognize, measure and control ergonomic risk. However, field employees, mobile sales workforces and delivery drivers have less control and typically rely more on education, awareness and best practices to minimize risk of injury.
Where there is lack of control over the work environment, perceived or otherwise, it is important to focus on the things that can be controlled. Specific to delivery drivers, one must first understand the route conditions that influence ergonomic issues in the field. Second, identify solutions currently in use that have decreased/eliminated ergonomic issues for route delivery and field service technicians. Third, implement new technologies and equipment that could further assist this environment. As the EHS professional, it is crucial that you increase awareness by highlighting practical examples where ergonomic improvements have led to positive influences in productivity, delivery and quality.
Laboratory – The laboratory environment poses unique challenges resulting from specialized equipment and work areas. Awareness of existing and potential ergonomic issues in the lab and knowing how to adjust workstations to fit the employee can have a huge impact.
Although it looks very different, at its core, a lab is really no different than a maintenance shop
in a heavy industrial manufacturer. Because there are defined workstations and specific equipment where t
asks are performed (with varying degrees of frequency), it is relatively straightforward to apply standard risk assessment tools and prioritization.
Here are three ways to make improvements in the laboratory environment:
Choose the right tools. Pipettes, scalpels and tweezers are some of the more common "hand tools" seen in lab environments. As with office ergonomics, there are a lot of products available to help lessen the physical stress on the lab worker that adhere to the defined guidelines of handle length and diameter, tip ejection force, etc. Obviously, replacing manual pipettes with electronic, multi-channel options is a solid first solution, but have you tried reverse-action tweezers? Frustrating to use at first, but the measurable level of ergonomic risk significantly can be impacted.
Properly set up the workstations. In addition to standard workbenches, we must optimize the setup of microscope stations, fume hoods and biosafety cabinets, among others. The primary sources of ergonomic risk at these stations continue to be awkward, sustained postures, especially of the neck, and reach distances. Here, there is a large incorporation of lean manufacturing principles.
Educate staff on best practices. As an EHS professional, sometimes you need to empower your laboratory employees, technicians, department health and safety personnel and managers to perform jobs in the safest and most efficient way possible (best practices), while still maintaining the integrity of the samples and the ethical standards of the experiment. Typical tasks that require coaching and education on how to best use one's body include animal handling tasks and manipulation of large containers (carboys).
To summarize, there are a variety of work environments that don't have the type of routine tasks to best fit a traditional ergonomics assessment methodology. However, risk always is present at some level, and it needs to be controlled. In fact, these non-traditional environments might end up being more dangerous because of the combined exposure to multiple tasks (and multiple sources of risk).
Comparing your tailored ergonomics initiative to the World Cup, there are the teams that have created historical legacies with a particular approach to the game, and others that are relatively fresh on the scene and have to patch together what works for them. Just remember the GOAL is the same and there is no time for injury.
Kent Hatcher, B.S., M.S., CPE, is the director of business development and an ergonomics engineer forAnn Arbor, Mich.-based Humantech, specializing in development and deployment of large-scale ergonomic initiatives in the food and beverage, industrial and consumer products industries.