Managing Health: An Alternative View to the MSD Pitch

What if we had an ergonomics standard? What if business understood the value of ergonomics? How would that impact workplace safety?

Reflection is a very powerful tool. Stealing away some quiet time every couple of months to take inventory of both personal and professional activities and accomplishments is a good way to make sure you are headed in the right direction. I'm sure we all have things of which we are proud and a few things we wish had gone better.

Personally, I know our team has experienced great success when my energy takes the form of pride and the voice in my mind asks, “What's next?” Conversely, when a strategy or tactic has fallen short, my energy drops. Anxiety and regret enter the picture and my question becomes, “What if?” The “what if/what's next” test lets you know if you've left anything on the table, no matter how successful you've been.

In late January, I was reflecting on why the topic of musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) and ergonomics sometimes is contentious. It has, at times, pitted labor against management, safety against production, employee against case handler and OSHA against business. Sometimes, it has pitted truth against fiction.

It's hard to believe that it's been over 10 years since the ergonomics standard was enacted into law (29 CFR 1910.900) in the final days of the Clinton administration and subsequently repealed by the Bush administration shortly after.

More recently, action was taken to place (or replace) an MSD column on OSHA's 300 form. This column previously was removed in 2003. This announced change applied to employers who already were required to keep injury and illness records. They then were required place a check mark in the new column for all MSD. However, in late January, OSHA announced its temporary withdrawal of the proposal, citing the need to address the concerns of small business.

On hearing this news, a whole bunch of “what ifs” entered my mind:

  • What if the Clinton administration had been able to put the standard in place earlier?
  • What if the Bush administration hadn't repealed it?
  • What if ergonomics wasn't a wedge issue for so many?
  • What if business “got it?”

Fortunately, the health and safety field has many business professionals who have been able to justify the need for active ergonomic improvement processes, and there are many businesses that do “get it.” In fact, many — if not all — of the Fortune 100 have active, successful ergonomics programs.

But what about the others? Maybe a different tactic is needed.

Just before Christmas, I had lunch with a retired executive. He held various leadership positions at companies in the automotive industry, including COO and CEO. He is a good friend and mentor, so I was comfortable asking him why so many business owners don't see ergonomics as a priority. Even though I had done work for him and he saw the value of advanced safety processes, his very candid answer was: “Because safety doesn't make money.”

My friend is right; 90 percent of the debate has, both historically and currently, focused on protecting workers from injury. Attempts to ring the productivity/quality bell always have been drowned out by the beating drum of injury reduction.

Certainly, ergonomics excellence is a worthy moral pursuit, but it is clear: If we want business to get the reasons that ergonomics makes business sense, we need to change the discussion.

  • What if we showed business leaders how ergonomic/human factor design makes people more productive?
  • What if we equate the science with the value it provides?
  • What if we showed business how ergonomics can be a barometer for their business?
  • What if we stop talking about injury avoidance and start talking about improving profit?>

The opportunities are endless. If we want business leaders to get as excited about the ergonomics process as they do their new marketing campaign or a new product, we must show them where the money is.

No matter the environment, MSD are tangible proof of a mismatch between work design and the capabilities of people. Simply put, where there is an MSD, there is waste and, therefore, less profit.

Our challenge is simple: Going forward, we need to strengthen the argument for ergonomics by expounding on the link between barriers to human performance and profit,rather than relying on the link between injury and cost.

We have the data and research. We have the anecdotal and the empirical evidence. We have the tone and the vocabulary. So I guess my question this month is: At the end of 2011, will you be asking “What if?” or “What's next?”

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

TAGS: Standards OSHA
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