Does Your Ergonomics Program Need a Tune-up?

Is your ergonomics program in synch with your needs now? Here are the keys to bringing it up to date and making it a high-performance vehicle for productivity and health.

More and more companies have formalized their workplace improvement activities into an "ergonomics" program: a planned initiative to better fit workplace conditions and job demands to the capabilities of the working population. The goal is to create a work environment where people are more productive, more reliable and less likely to suffer from musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).

It is this benefit, the reduction of MSDs and the associated costs, that has captured the attention of companies and OSHA. Effective ergonomics programs can help companies limit MSDs and reduce their workers' compensation costs. A 1977 General Accounting Office study of five businesses found they experienced reductions in ergonomics-related workers' compensation costs ranging from 35 percent to 91 percent after they implemented an ergonomics program. The companies saved more than $3.5 million per year in ergonomics-related workers' compensation costs.

Why isn't every company experiencing these types of successes? Often, what's lacking is a programmatic approach to sustain ergonomics improvement activities. Without a process, ergonomics can be successful only as long as a champion continually drives the activities. When the champion moves to another department or tires of pushing the issue, the activities stall and injury rates begin rising again.

Does your ergonomics program need a tune-up? The answer depends on your satisfaction with your current level of success. To gauge your ergonomics program's success, ask yourself these questions:

1. Is our ergonomics program achieving a measurable reduction in work-related MSD (WMSD) incident and severity rates?

2. Are these reductions achieved at an acceptable cost to business?

These are the tough questions business managers must address for every program they are asked to support. Ergonomics is no different. If your ergonomics program is significantly reducing WMSD rates and costs are minimal, you have a well-oiled machine. But if either of these factors is out of tolerance, an ergonomics program tune-up can make a significant impact.

Approaches That Achieve Results

The purpose of a tune-up is to get your machine (i.e., your ergonomics program) running to specification. What are the specs for an effective ergonomics program? Companies are finding that their ergonomics programs are most effective when three approaches are in place:

1. The ergonomics process is driven by risk management. Addressing hazardous conditions is a fundamental approach consistent with conventional safety (e.g., safeguarding machines where there is the potential for injury, even when no injury has occurred) and industrial hygiene (e.g., reducing exposure to toxins in advance of the onset of illness). These same principles are applied to company ergonomics programs when WMSD risks are identified and improvement priorities are established, based on employee exposures to these risks.

To better understand if your company's ergonomics program is driven by risk management, ask yourself these questions: Once an ergonomic improvement is implemented, is it subsequently put in place for all jobs with similar risks, or only for those in which injuries have occurred? Are plans for new equipment or workstation setups evaluated to ensure that new WMSD risks are not being introduced into the workplace? Have you implemented a sitewide WMSD risk survey to highlight ergonomic priorities?

2. Ergonomics is integrated with facilities management and engineering activities. The health and safety staff plays an important role in the ergonomics process, but it often falls to engineering and facilities management personnel to design, select and implement improvements. Certain ergonomic improvements cannot be achieved without their involvement, particularly those requiring capital expenditures. In addition, these professionals are involved in the acquisition of new equipment and changes to workstation set-up, and are in the best position to ensure that new WMSD risks are not introduced into the workplace.

Two activities are necessary to integrate ergonomics with facilities management and engineering activities: Educate technical staff involved in the specification of new equipment and workstation setups in ergonomic design guidelines and establish ergonomic design standards and specifications for typical workstations that are easily accessible by engineering and facilities management staffs.

3. Ergonomics is supported by all layers of management. Very little progress can be made without management support. Management controls the allocation of resources, such as the time to spend on developing and implementing ergonomic improvements, the money to purchase the improvements, and the time and money to deploy ergonomics training. Management can become a driver for the success of your ergonomics program, or it can become a barrier to your efforts.

To gain support for your ergonomics program at the highest levels of management (lower levels will follow), you need to do two things:

  • Position ergonomics as a good investment. In addition to tracking savings from workers' compensation costs, quantify savings from such things as increased efficiency, reduced errors and improved absenteeism rates that result from ergonomic improvements. Studies have shown productivity increases from ergonomics improvements as high as 20 percent in the office (ed.cit., Sauter, Dainoff, Smith, 1990) and ranging from 25 percent to 40 percent in manufacturing environments.
  • Develop a business plan for ergonomics. State the need that is being addressed, identify the strategy being used and resources needed and describe the expected benefits. Then track your results. Management needs to see that their investment will result in a defined benefit to the company.

Evaluating Your Ergonomics Program

There are three reasons you would want to evaluate your ergonomics program:

  1. Your program is not achieving the desired results at an affordable cost.
  2. Your program is effective and efficient, but you desire to improve.
  3. OSHA's working draft Ergonomics Program Standard requires you to evaluate your program once every three years.

A simple way to evaluate your ergonomics program is to perform a "gap analysis" by comparing your activities to a list taken from best practices. One approach, given below, is based on six important elements of an effective ergonomics program. This list has been derived from such documents as OSHA"s Ergonomics Program Management Guidelines for Meatpacking Plants (OSHA 3123, 1993) and NIOSH's Elements of Ergonomics Program (DHHS 97-117, 1997), as well as observations in industry. For access to these documents, go to the "What's New?" section at www.htec.com.

Compare your ergonomics program activities with the following list to identify opportunties for improvement and those activities that are not currently being accomplished systematically in your organization.

1. Management Leadership and Employee Involvement:

  • Employee involvement is supported by a mission statement signed by management.
  • Accountability is assigned for ergonomics, medical management, facilities management and engineering management.
  • The ergonomics program is reviewed periodically and compared with industry best practices.
  • Program components are reviewed periodically to ensure that the ergonomics program is meeting stated goals.

2. Worksite Analysis/Risk Assessment:

  • Injury/illness records and employee reports are reviewed periodically to identify ergonomic concerns with jobs and workstations.
  • Ergonomic risk assessments are performed before changes are made to workstation layouts, tools, equipment, furniture and processes.
  • Ergonomic risks are identified and prioritized by department and communicated to management.
  • Ergonomic risk assessments and employee discomfort surveys are performed periodically.

3. Hazard Prevention and Control:

  • Documented processes to perform ergonomic hazard analysis and to implement acceptable controls are part of the program.
  • Ergonomic assessments include the evaluation and documentation of known ergonomic risk factors by both objective and subjective measures.
  • Multiple control strategies are evaluated, with an emphasis on engineering controls.
  • Administrative controls are designed to control specific ergonomic risks and monitored to ensure that they are followed.
  • Design standards for tools, equipment, and furniture are applied to vendors, as well as internally.

4. Medical Management:

  • Prevention, recognition and control of ergonomics-related injuries and illnesses are part of a trained health care provider service that has managed protocols.
  • A qualified health care provider administers the medical management program.
  • Periodic health surveillance is conducted for employees assigned to jobs with recognized ergonomic risks.
  • Treatment protocols follow established practices for conservative care.
  • Trends are monitored through comprehensive recordkeeping.
  • Early reporting of signs and symptoms of cumulative trauma disorders is encouraged.

5. Training and Education:

  • Training programs are designed to fit the needs of different levels of personnel.
  • Ergonomic awareness training is given annually to employees exposed to ergonomic risks.
  • Solutions training addresses retrofitted interventions and preventive measures for new workplace design.
  • Maintenance and facilities management personnel understand and apply the issues affecting ergonomic improvements.

6. Process Management:

  • Goals and objectives drive your ergonomics activities.
  • An ergonomics plan with measurable goals and defined resources is generated annually.
  • Internal customers (i.e., employees, supervisors and managers) are stratified, and the satisfaction level of each subset is monitored independently.
  • Improvement projects have clearly defined goals and timelines.
  • Key ergonomics processes, including ergonomics team activities, are monitored and their performance checked against metrics.
  • Facilities planning and ergonomics are linked by defined process steps.

What to Do Next

Now that you have established the opportunties for improving your ergonomics program, it is time to create your improvement plan. This is most often accomplished with a team, whether it's an ergonomics committee or a management task force.

Start by listing the gaps in your current program: those activities listed above that are not accomplished systematically in your process. Evaluate each gap to determine if adding the specific activity will help you improve the effectiveness and efficiency of your ergonomics program. Craft an action plan for closing the gaps, specifying the actions that must take place, the persons responsible for implementing them and the target dates for their completion.

Meet periodically to follow up on the action plan and modify it as needed. Repeat the cycle of gap analysis and improving the ergonomics program annually. Some companies do a quarterly progress check.

Even if your ergonomics program is yielding excellent results, you should set standards, take performance metrics, communicate regularly with management, employees and engineering and facilities management staffs, and conduct periodic checkups to keep it running at peak performance.

Mike Wynn, CPE, CIE, is a vice president and ergonomics engineer at Humantech Inc. He has served as program manager for clients in the automotive, pharmaceutical, glass, chemical and newspaper industries. Wynn has a B.S.E. degree in industrial and operations engineering and an M.B.A. from the University of Michigan. He is a member of the Institute of Industrial Engineers and has delivered numerous presentations on occupational ergonomics at national conferences. Humantech Inc. specializes in ergonomic training, risk assessments, engineering and design and ergonomics program management. It is located in Ann Arbor, Mich. and Irvine, Calif. Contact Lauren Caris at (734) 663-3330, ext. 137 for a free copy of the Ergonomics Program Self-assessment or visit the "What's New?" section at www.htec.com for additional readings on ergonomics program management.

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