Managing Health: Is Ergonomics a Flawed Science?

Even for someone who is ambivalent about the adoption of an ergonomics standard, calling ergonomics “flawed science” is fightin’ words!

Ergonomics seems to be in the news a lot lately. Talk of a federal ergonomics standard once again has surfaced, along with negative commentary claiming that ergonomics is “flawed science” that would put inappropriate financial burdens on businesses during these tough economic times.

As mentioned in my article from October 2009 (“A Change in the Air”), I'm rather ambivalent to the adoption of a standard and this article is not going to be about the standard. However, I must take exception to the statement that ergonomics is “flawed science.”

Clearly it is not. Ergonomics — correctly deployed through engineering and workplace design — delivers safer, less costly and more productive work environments. Studies in support of this view regularly have been published since the debate, adoption and removal of the last standard in the time of the Clinton and Bush administrations.

In August 1999, the Workplace Preservation Act (H.R. 987), sponsored by Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, required OSHA to wait for the results of a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) ergonomics study before compelling employers to comply with a costly national ergonomics standard. In 2001, NAS released its study, which stated: “There is clear and unequivocal evidence that musculoskeletal disorders are caused by exposure to ergonomic hazards at work, and that ergonomics programs are effective in reducing these disorders.”

It's unfortunate that sometimes opinion and politics get in the way of facts and progress. The fact is, many Fortune 500 companies have made the investment in programs to address work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSD) and they are making good progress in reducing the occurrence of these injuries. Obviously, there must be a reasonable return on investment for these companies to continue this financial “burden.”

ERGONOMICS AS IMPROVEMENT PROCESS

How do I know companies are investing? Simple, we studied it. My peer Walt Rostykus recently completed a benchmarking study and we presented the finding via a webinar in conjunction with EHS Today. I will share some of the more important findings here.

This 2009/2010 benchmarking study focused on Fortune 500 domestic companies that are: regulated by OSHA, have international operations, are identified by NAICS (North American Industry Classification System) and are recognized as world-class operations. In our view, “world-class,” as defined by the U.S. Government Accounting Office, reflects most accepted descriptions: “Organizations that are recognized as the best for at least one critical business process and are held as models for other organizations.” Thirteen companies participated in the benchmarking study, representing the aerospace, food, medical devices and vehicle assembly industries, among others.

Many of the participants are recognized leaders in health and safety excellence. However, this study specifically focused on their current program for improving workplace ergonomics. While all companies were successful in reducing their work-related musculoskeletal disorder injuries, there are four organizations that markedly were better. Coincidently, or perhaps not, they had very similar practices in the management of their workplace improvement process.

WHY WERE THEY BETTER?

Planning — All four managed ergonomics as an improvement process, aligned with or modeled after continuous improvement. They all made sure their employees understood what was expected of them and who did what by establishing clear roles and responsibilities of employees at several levels of the organization, including a sponsor within senior management.

Similarly, they each had clearly stated goals for the reduction of risk and other leading measures that could be tracked across all levels of the operation. This way, all managers and departments can measure and track their contribution to the common goals.

Implementation and operation — All four companies invested in training their leadership and ergonomics process leads on how to manage the strategic elements of the ergonomics process and provided their organization with training on the application of a common set of tools for measuring WMSD risk. These top performers also utilized the method that drove change in their own organization to help deploy their ergonomic improvement process. All integrated ergonomic assessment tools and design guidelines into their existing kaizen events.

Checking and corrective action — All four of these companies checked the effectiveness of individual workstation improvements by conducting follow-up assessments to measure the impact on WMSD risk, as well as analyzing the program as a whole by conducting annual reviews (or audits) of their ergonomics improvement process.

Management review — The companies reviewed the effectiveness of their ergonomics process at the top level. Notably, all were trying to engage and improve involvement and accountability of their engineers for the risk level and ergonomic design of new tools and equipment.

Through this benchmarking process, attending conferences and talking with industry safety professionals and business managers, it is evident that many organizations are trying to tackle the WMSD problem in the absence of a legislated process. They are making good progress and, quite possibly, at least for companies of their stature, a standard may not be necessary.

Unfortunately, business managers and politicians who continue to dismiss ergonomics as “flawed science” and “too costly” are denying organizations access to a valuable business tool that helps improve operations through the design of supportive, quality-focused work environments.

If we stand by as the science of ergonomics is ridiculed and relegated to myth, corporations will continue to waste millions of dollars in compensation costs, continue to add to the ranks of the walking wounded and waste the skill, will and experience of arguably the most productive work force in the world. If business can't afford to fix the WMSD problem, who can?


James Mallon, CPE, is a vice president with Humantech. Contact him at [email protected], call 734-663-6707 or visit http://www.humantech.com for more information.

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