When considering why to perform an ergonomics risk assessment, these reasons can be lumped into categories that guide us toward who should perform the assessment. Consider the first two questions that an ergonomics risk assessment tool addresses: “Which jobs pose the greatest risk?” and “How much is too much?”
These questions revolve around the core of ergonomics, and are a level of training that would be of value to anyone. Therefore, if an ergonomics risk assessment tool is used primarily as a training tool, then anyone can use this tool with sufficient training. The key here is that the tool provides a means of taking the analyst from a basic, subjective approach to a more quantitative approach (i.e. they learn something). The use of the advanced tool is not an absolute necessity in this situation, but it helps the analyst see how ergonomics stressors and exposure factors combine to help predict risk. This knowledge will improve any subjective assessment that an analyst performs in the future.
The next two questions that an ergonomics tool addresses present a different consideration of who should perform the assessment: “How can improvements be shown and evaluated?” and “How can ergonomics efforts be documented?”
When answering questions like these, accuracy becomes a much larger consideration. Therefore, the person performing the assessment has a higher level of significance. Consider the level of importance of data that is used to justify an ergonomics project or determine the work-relatedness of an injury in a workers’ compensation case. In situations like these, where financial and/or legal factors come into play, the need for experienced and trained analysts is evident. In cases where a project is costly with respect to capital changes or the possibility of a deposition or trial is looming, a company may want to consider the use of a professional ergonomist.
How Should You Perform an Ergonomics Risk Assessment?
Considering the number of ergonomics risk assessment tools that are available in books, peer-reviewed literature and from various companies and consultants, it is impossible to provide instructions on how to perform each of these assessments. Instead, there are three simple recommendations that one should follow when choosing a tool that will help achieve accurate and valuable outcomes.
Read original articles and/or documentation to understand the design, use, and intent of the ergonomics tool – One of the most common errors that is made with an ergonomics risk assessment tool is using the tool incorrectly and for the wrong purpose. When an ergonomics tool is developed it usually is with a specific purpose, such as evaluating a specific type of activity (e.g. lifting, posture, hand activity, etc.) or a specific work environment. The validity of the tool may be compromised if used outside of these conditions, so it is important to know the boundaries.
One of the challenges that often is evident when reviewing the information about an ergonomics tool is that there is insufficient information to determine the exact way in which the tool should be implemented. Further, it is impossible to determine what to do when attempting to apply the tool in non-optimal conditions (i.e., What do you do when a novel situation develops?). One would expect that a tool presented in a peer-reviewed article would not fall into this same category, but in many cases, articles primarily focus on the theory and design of the tools and not their practical applications. This problem leads to the second recommendation:
Establish assumptions and decision criteria for the tool – In order to consistently and effectively apply an ergonomics tool, it is important to interpret the design and approach of the tool and develop appropriate strategies to consistently and accurately implement it. Once the boundaries of the tool are understood, then it is necessary to develop decision criteria to ensure the tool always is used within these boundaries, and that users of the tool will achieve consistent outcomes (i.e. reliability).
If a tool consistently is used, then the output of the tool can be used to measure such conditions as baseline exposure, differences in exposure and changes in exposure. With this level of consistency, it is unnecessary to have a tool that has external validity (i.e. correlation with injury causation). Instead, the tool simply provides a means of accurately measuring changes in exposure, which is of value in itself. If the tool has been validated through research such that it has external validity, then the value of the measures is even greater.
Provide sufficient time for training and practice – One of the most critical factors in achieving accurate, consistent output from an ergonomics risk assessment tool is practice. Once an individual is trained on the design and boundaries of the tool, and on the process and decision criteria for implementation of the tool, then it is necessary to practice, practice and practice again.
An analyst should be able to explain the theory of a tool, discuss the measures and methods that are used to apply the tool, describe the output of the tool and interpret the output of the tool before they begin to apply it in real world situations. This does not mean that a person cannot use a tool without this absolute level of knowledge. Instead, this means that the person should practice and learn about the tool in a work setting, but refrain from using the outputs until he or she is positive that the process is accurate.
In this interim stage, it would be of value to discuss the implementation of the tool with a mentor or long-time user. In the ergonomics community, the use of email list servers provides an opportunity to learn from colleagues, or the Board of Certification in Professional Ergonomics (BCPE) Web site (http://www.bcpe.org) provides a listing of professional ergonomists around the country. A local professional may be willing to provide mentorship in this process.
Contributing Editor David Brodie, MS, CPE, (firstname.lastname@example.org) is director of ergonomics services for Atlas Ergonomics. Atlas Ergonomics, LLC is a leading ergonomic service and technology provider, helping customers reduce the spiraling costs of work related injuries within industrial, office, and commercial driver environments. Atlas Ergonomics provides turnkey support through a nationwide network of providers or can assist corporate resources with the necessary training and technology. Atlas Ergonomics is located in Grand Haven, Michigan, and additional information can be found at http://www.atlasergo.com.