A Change in the Air

October marks the midpoint of football season, a highly competitive time as teams jockey for position to set themselves up for the playoffs and ultimately the chance to win a championship. It also marks a critical point in another full contact sport known as budgeting and planning.

As 2009 winds down, we can look back at how we persistently have been challenged to change our personal and professional spending habits with the aim of doing more with less. But with the worst of the economic trouble seemingly (and hopefully) behind us, now is the time for EHS professionals to rejuvenate and regain lost ground in their health and safety processes.

One of the first steps in any planning process is to understand the current state of the regulatory environment. No doubt you have read or heard discussions regarding intended changes at OSHA including improved oversight of the Voluntary Protection Program. There also has been speculation about reviving the push for an ergonomics standard. In Michigan, an ergonomic standard is nearing acceptance as a rule and would join California's RMI Standard as one of only two state standards.

As an ergonomics engineer and consultant, you might think that I would be in favor of an ergonomics standard. Clearly, any activity that draws informed attention to ergonomic injuries or work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs) and encourages employers to take proper steps to systematically reduce risk in their workplaces is good. But, perhaps oddly, I am ambivalent to the presence or absence of a regulatory mechanism for ergonomics.

PROS AND CONS

On one hand, I see the advantage of setting a standard to prevent work-related musculoskeletal disorders in the workplace. Injuries are debilitating. They rob employers of skilled workers, rob employees of their health and negatively impact the quality of home life.

A standard, by definition, would prescribe a common set of expectations for employer activity which, when implemented, should set the stage for an evolution in safety performance. With better performance will come best practices and progress inevitably will be made towards the reduction of WMSDs at work. Or so the theory goes …

On the other hand, a regulatory standard, again by definition, creates a minimal performance threshold, and there is the danger in setting the bar too low. As a lowest-common-denominator approach, ergonomics standards tend to emphasize reaction to injuries, not getting ahead of the problem and proactively reducing the risks that cause the injuries.

In business, opportunities and risks often are evaluated by weighing the potential impact on the business and the likelihood of occurrence. Ergonomic injuries are serious, and I don't believe any business leader in America intentionally sets out to have a hazardous workplace. But in this context, will an ergonomics standard be any more effective than the general duty clause at creating change?

CHOOSING THE RIGHT TOOL

Maybe a regulatory standard for WMSDs is the wrong tool for the job. A standard will position ergonomics as a hurdle to overcome rather than a process that will create tangible value for an organization. It will be a real setback if a standard removes the worthwhile need to present an ergonomics process as an investment with real returns.

The fact is, good ergonomics works. A review of data presented at recent conferences demonstrates that occupational ergonomics initiatives focused on the engineering and design of the workplace and its tools reduce injury rates and cut costs. Sixty-nine case studies that have been presented by Fortune 500 company representatives at various conferences including the Applied Ergonomics Conference, the National Ergonomics Conference and Exposition and the ASSE Safety Conference demonstrate:

  • WMSD lost work days are down 80 percent overall
  • WMSD rates are down 81 percent overall
  • Workers' compensation costs are down 70 percent
  • Incidence rate are down 55 percent overall

Similarly, companies have reported remarkable project-specific success including the following average improvements:

  • Productivity is up 62 percent
  • Cycle time is down 44 percent
  • Cost of quality is down $942,805

This review illustrates excellent results achieved without a standard. And, these improvement programs successfully and repeatedly have been deployed across industry.

The risks that cause WMSD challenges are well known; our profession has proven these are problems that can be solved. Ergonomics principles wisely applied improve both safety and performance. And, frankly, if your company leadership thinks that your ergonomics program will cost money, you are not doing it right.

It's notable that neither Lean nor Six Sigma requires laws for them to be widely accepted and implemented. Rather, it is through professionals repeatedly demonstrating value to the bottom line that they gain acceptance and praise as keys to success in today's competitive environment. We must ask ourselves, “Are we, as EHS professionals, prepared to do the same?”

James Mallon, CPE, is a vice president with Humantech, which delivers practical solutions that impact safety, quality and productivity. For additional information visit http://www.humantech.com or call 734-663-6707. Mallon can be contacted directly at [email protected] .com.

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