NSC: Demonstrating the Business Value of Ergonomics

In an Oct. 6 session at the 2010 National Safety Council (NSC) Congress and Expo, Deepesh Desai, CPE, ergonomics engineer with Humantech Inc., shared tips for demonstrating the value of ergonomics programs to management and evaluating return on investment (ROI).

“Ergonomics is an engineering issue and not a health and safety issue,” Desai said. “The only time it becomes a health and safety issue is after you see an injury.”

Desai explained that a common maturity curve – moving from reactive to proactive to advanced stages – can be used for ergonomics programs. “As safety people, we hate the reactive phase,” he explained. “What it means is that we are fire fighting.”

Being proactive, meanwhile, means managing risks rather than consequences. That entails not introducing any new risk and controlling any incoming risk through new equipment, workstations, product design and so on.

Desai outlined the key elements of successful ergonomics programs. In addition to being efficient, effective, sustainable and compliant, these programs should be:

  • Owned by the right people and involve the right people. Desai said that he often has witnessed ergonomics teams that aren’t fully successful because they don’t have all aspects of the organization involved in the process.
  • Integrated with other initiatives and processes. The elements of an ergonomics program should be simple enough to integrate or align with any of the other processes in the facility.
  • Focused on risk management. The three basic risk factors that cause an ergonomics injury, Desai explained, are force, posture and frequency. Ergonomics programs also should address soft tissue compression, low temperature, vibration, impact stress and glove issues.
  • Managed as a process. Like other workplace initiatives, ergonomics programs must follow a process and a PDCA (plan, do, check, act) cycle.

The goal is to move away from managing consequences to managing risk, which can be accomplished through employee observations and input, screening tools and injury trends and more, Desai said.

ROI Models

Desai discussed three ROI models that can be used to convince management to initiative ergonomic improvements. Each model has its own challenges and benefits:

Regulatory compliance – Ergonomics currently falls under OSHA’s general duty clause in the United States, with the exception of California, which has its own ergonomics rule. Depending on your facility’s incident rate as compared to the industry average rate, regulatory compliance could cost-justify ergonomics improvements, Desai said. If a facility operates with low injury rates, however, it may be difficult to convince management that there is a cost justification based purely on regulatory compliance purposes.

Health and safety performance – This method examines the cost of injuries. According to Desai, the national average direct cost of a sprain/strain injury is $12,800 dollars; cumulative trauma is $14,000; and a lower-back injury is $25,800. Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of additional, indirect costs associated with ergonomics injuries. Depending on your workers’ compensation cost and your profit margin, this method comes down to the amount of additional product the company would have to produce to make up for the injury expenses, he explained. The problem with this method is that it is reactive instead of proactive.

Production enhancement – Desai considers this method, which essentially examines saved time, the most powerful. For example, seconds can be shaved off a work shift every time a worker can avoid reaching for tools or taking unnecessary steps. That saved time either can be used to create more product or put toward another task. It then can be converted into a dollar value and calculated as ROI. “This is the most quantitative and straightforward data that’s available out there,” Desai said. “Time savings is the best way to cost-justify,” he added, especially if there are no ergonomic injuries to examine.

Establish Common Measures

Desai also stressed that EHS professionals should move from lagging to leading metrics for ergonomics. To that end, they can measure the percent of new workstations, tools or equipment with low risk upon purchase or installation; the percentage of targeted workstations, tools or equipment assessed for risk; and the percentage of employees who have completed an appropriate level of training.

According to Desai, investing in ergonomics improvement processes can lead to millions of dollars in saved revenue, large ROI and significantly reduced risk. But don’t rest on your laurels once you’ve made some progress.

“You want to be able to track, measure and audit data every year so you know exactly where your ergonomics process is going,” Desai said.

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