Beyond Debate: Award-winning Ergonomics Programs

Companies on both sides of the Atlantic are coming up with innovative ergonomic solutions. Find out what these programs have in common.

If you were a Martian listening to the ergonomics debate tearing through U.S. business and political worlds, you could be forgiven for believing that Americans invented musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). You might also be surprised to discover that other countries have been regulating ergonomics for years.

As a result, many companies in Europe have been tackling ergonomic problems for a long time. To publicize the most successful programs, the European Union awarded prizes to 13 businesses scattered throughout the member states last year.

In the United States as well, long before OSHA got serious about an ergonomics rule, companies began to address ergonomic issues for safety and productivity reasons.

As more American businesses prepare to comply with -- or litigate -- OSHA's new ergonomic standard, it makes sense to look at the experience of a few companies with award-winning ergonomic programs on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

Common Elements of Success

In November, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EASHW) recognized good practices in MSD prevention as part of the European Week for Safety and Health at Work.

Two of the winners, Denmark's meat-packing giant Danish Crown and Belgian-based Borealis Polymers, a specialty chemical company with 730 employees, came up with solutions to ergonomic problems that may be of particular interest to American companies.

In the United States, the Voluntary Protection Programs Participants' Association (VPPPA) recognized the outstanding work in this area done by the Pliant Corp., based in Schaumburg, Ill. The company, then known as Huntsman Packaging Corp., won VPPPA's Innovation Award.

The ergonomic programs of Pliant, Danish Crown and Borealis have a number of common features:

  • The companies' interest in ergonomics began with a comprehensive assessment of occupational hazards and other employee concerns;
  • Employees participated deeply in every step of the process;
  • Success often came only after initial failure and required years of effort;
  • There was strong upper-management support;
  • Benefits were real, but often difficult to quantify; and
  • The companies developed inventions that proved effective and are for sale.

In the case of Borealis, the payoff was almost immediate. "Our investment in ergonomics was paid back in a year," said Koen Servaes, engineer in the material handling department and one of the designers of a prize-winning forklift truck.

Big, Yellow Banana

Four years ago, Borealis participated in a university study evaluating the mental and physical aspects of working conditions in the company's material handling department. The company produces high-density polyethylene, polypropylene and other plastic products.

The material handling department at the company's Beringen plant has a number of responsibilities that raise ergonomic issues:

  • Packing products into 50-pound bags and stacking the products in the warehouse;
  • Loading and unloading trucks with raw materials and finished products; and
  • Distributing raw materials to various production units.

By far the biggest physical complaint in the material handling department had to do with driving forklift trucks. When fully loaded, these trucks generally have to be driven backward because the pile of pallets blocks the driver's forward view. It takes little imagination to conceive of the back and neck ailments that result from spending a good part of the day twisting around, looking over your shoulder.

The law in Belgium requires an ergonomic hazard analysis for all new equipment and installations, but because the trucks had been in use for years, the company was not required to address these concerns. Upper management support was there from the start, however, in part because of a company values statement that includes "willingness to change," "open, two-way communications" and commitment to health, safety and the environment.

Another one of Borealis' values: "We stand behind what we say," and the company proved that in its response to the forklift problem.

The company invited four truck operators into a project team along with Servaes and ergonomists from IDEWE, a consulting firm hired specifically for this purpose. An employee of Barlow Handling, a firm that adapts existing forklift trucks, also took part in the discussions. The team designed a new forklift from the ground up, and Servaes said the active participation of the operators was critical to the project's success.

Periodically, the team stopped and checked the design with the experts and those who would have to use it. Sometimes, this meant they had to dismantle the prototype and start over -- a frustration for the supplier.

"We were the first ones ever to go to our forklift truck supplier and tell him, 'This is the way we want it,'" Servaes said.

The operators' participation in the effort was critical, not only in finding the right design, but in winning employee acceptance of the final product.

"It's like a big, yellow banana," Servaes said of the 9-foot high forklift truck. "We worried [that] the people on the work floor might laugh their heads off and say, 'This will never work!'"

With that in mind, the company made sure that the new design would be introduced by operators from the project team and "sold" by them to their colleagues.

"You may have the best forklift in the world, but if the operators have no say in it, they will criticize it from the start, and you will never overcome this," Servaes said.

Borealis does not keep separate figures on MSDs, so it is impossible to quantify its success in improving this aspect of worker health. According to the company's safety, health and environmental manager, Eddy Eyckmans, however, lost work time was not the primary motivation for the project.

"The problem was people were not happy working there," Eyckmans said.

Another factor may be Belgium's decision to start requiring companies to do ergonomic interventions.

"There is a big shift going on here," said Dirk Delaruelle, an ergonomist at IDEWE who participated in Borealis' forklift truck project. "Three years ago, we had two persons doing ergonomics at our firm. Now we have seven." Delaruelle believes the shift is largely a function of new ergonomics legislation.

Along with improved morale, the big payoff at Borealis has been in productivity. "Now we can transport two pallets at once, so we save a lot of time," Eyckmans said.

According to figures provided by Borealis, the new truck cost $10,000 to design, and the company pays another $40,000 per year in increased rental fees. Last year, the forklift truck saved the company $265,000 by cutting the number of operator hours.

Productivity gains are more easily quantified than improved morale, but Servaes had no doubt about the latter point.

"The operators say that it's the best money we ever spent," he said.

The Meat Magnet

Danish Crown, the biggest meat-processing company in Denmark, won its award last year for a specially designed vacuum lifting device, dubbed the "meat magnet."

According to EASHW, back disorders are quite common among Danish meat workers. Some worksites require employees to lift approximately 10 tons an hour using inappropriate movements.

The winning invention allows workers to place the suction device on the meat slab, creating a vacuum so the hunk of meat can be lifted and held for transport without much physical exertion on the part of the worker.

Lisbeth Jungdal has 20 years of experience working as an ergonomic consultant for the meat industry at the Occupational Health and Safety Service in Denmark. The service is a nonprofit, independent organization, but the Danish government requires companies to use and pay for the service.

Ergonomic regulation began many years ago in Denmark. One factor that may have made it easier for business to deal with the rules is that, unlike the United States, in Denmark, as elsewhere in Europe, ergonomic regulation has proceeded incrementally.

"Although companies here originally fought it, more and more, they find it good for business," Jungdal said.

Jungdal also said governmental ergonomic regulation has been an important factor in getting companies to address ergonomic problems.

The regulatory situation in Denmark resembles OSHA's new rule in this respect: If a worker gets hurt, companies are required to do an ergonomic hazard assessment to make sure other people are not hurt the same way. If the assessment uncovers ergonomic hazards, companies are required to develop a plan to address the problem.

According to Jungdal, including workers in the process of identifying and fixing ergonomics hazard is "very important." The meat magnet grew out of meetings with workers, Jungdal colleague Inger Callisen, company management and a manufacturer.

The meat magnet cost Danish Crown approximately $27,000, according to Jorn Kjaer, production manager at a plant that uses the device. Kjaer said the meat magnet has given no direct benefit in cutting labor costs. "We did this to protect workers," he explained.

Carl Sandberg, a worker safety representative who has worked at the plant for eight years, confirmed that the meat magnet has made his job a lot easier.

"We're not more effective, but we have got a much better work environment," Sandberg said.

Kjaer had no data on whether the magnet had cut the number of lost workdays due to MSDs because the company does not keep track of specific diseases.

Jungdal reports that fewer employees are seeking treatment for lower back pains, and training and retention of new employees has become easier. Morale is much improved, so much so that "many good ideas put forward by employees for technical innovations and work organization have been implemented," she said.

Ergonomics: A Competitive Edge?

Pliant keeps detailed records of workplace illnesses, and the figures it has are impressive. Five years ago, the company had 291 lost workdays, plus an unknown amount of restricted work, because of cumulative trauma injuries. Since the introduction of a patented autowicketing system in 1999, not a single day of work has been lost because of repetitive motion injuries, according to the company.

Pliant's Macedon, N.Y., plant employs about 430 people and produces plastic bags that are boxed and shipped for use as bread or taco bags.

In the past, to prepare the finished product for shipping, a stack of slippery plastic bags, weighing up to 10 pounds, had to be lifted manually from the conveyor belt and placed on a U-shaped wire wicket. This operation had to be repeated nearly 1,500 times in a 12-hour shift.

Plant manager Tom Bowden said the company's interest in ergonomics goes back to the 1980s, when the company spent half a million dollars on an earlier version of the autowicketing system that never worked. The original support of upper management to address the problem was based on a combination of the previous owner's religious beliefs and business sense, Bowden explained. The new owners and managers of Pliant remain deeply committed to safety.

"When you look at our industry, the single-largest worker exposure is repetitive motion injury," Bowden said. Pliant spent $1.6 million on the new autowicketer project, re-organizing the production lines and automating the packing process. It also purchased 17 autowicketers, which cost $500,000 apiece.

Pliant's situation offers a kind of "ergonomics testing laboratory," because the company has only installed 17 of the automated wicketers out of 36 production lines. As a result, when an employees is injured from work on a nonautomated line, the company can put the person back to work on one of the automated lines. The experiment appears to be succeeding.

"We have retained at least four people who would otherwise not have been able to function," while avoiding an unknown number of injuries, Bowden said. At the same time, he pointed out, some people have been working in the plant for 25 years with no trouble at all, evidence of how individual an MSD can be.

The company's ergonomics program consists of far more than the autowicketer and has nearly all the elements called for in OSHA's new rule: employee participation, risk and job assessments, and worker training.

The company has saved money on workers' compensation costs. Streamlining production has led to some staffing reductions, but the real benefits are difficult to quantify, Bowden said.

"I think that, in this industry, as in most industries, a competitive edge comes from keeping your people and keeping your skill base," he said. "I think our ergo program has absolutely given us a competitive advantage."

Steve Kincaid, Pliant's finishing department production manager, noted that another hard-to-quantify benefit of the program is improved morale.

In addition, Kincaid pointed out that OSHA is mandating that employers do what Pliant is doing. "We're heads and heels ahead of the competition, so now they'll be playing catch-up at a higher cost."

What's the Difference?

It is risky to jump to intercontinental conclusions about differing approaches to ergonomics based on the experience of a handful of companies. In conversations with companies and professionals that have experience with successful ergonomics programs here and abroad, however, these programs have many of the same features required by the OSHA standard. For example, the companies reviewed here emphasize the importance of employee participation, a key provision of the final OSHA rule.

The stories told here confirmed one judgment made by Dr. Jeanne Stellman, Ph.D., editor of The Encyclopedia of Occupational Health and Safety.

"In the U.S., we discuss ergonomics in quantitative terms, as if it were measurable in this way," she said. "In Europe, people think about ergonomics more as the overall way you deal with workers so they can work efficiently and healthfully." Stellman described the American "reductionist" view of a world that is "a very complicated place."

If you do not believe the world is complicated, try to figure out European regulations on ergonomics and you may fall down on your knees and give thanks for OSHA's 900-page rule. Rapidly changing rules vary from nation to nation in Europe, and the European Union is getting into the act with its own set of guidelines.

Ellen Rosskam, a training officer at the International Labor Organization's Occupational Safety and Health Branch in Geneva, agreed with Stellman. Rosskam said there is a long history of "social dialogue" in Europe that does not exist in America, where labor-management relations are often adversarial.

Another difference that may reduce European hostility to regulation is the common practice of relying on nonprofit, nongovernmental occupational health and safety services. These services appear to help companies comply with regulations while avoiding the trust problems associated with relying on governmental compliance assistance.

These factors, combined with the more gradual approach taken toward ergonomic regulation on the other side of the Atlantic, may have led to an approach to the issue that is less politicized and less polarized than in the United States.

Though attitudes in Europe may differ, ergonomic-related injuries remain a major concern. In fact, one of the main conclusions of the European Week for Safety and Health at Work, when the ergonomic awards were given, is that "work-related musculoskeletal disorders are fast becoming the greatest health and safety challenge for Europe." Work-related MSDs account for up to half of all occupational illnesses in Europe, affecting more than 40 million workers and reducing European competitiveness, according to the European Union.

The growing awareness of ergonomics around the world may lead American companies with overseas operations to consider establishing a companywide ergonomics program.

For Pliant's Kincaid, the question of whether to work on ergonomics is beyond debate. When asked what advice he would give to companies trying to decide what to do about ergonomics, he said:

"Just do it."

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