Managing Health: Ergonomics – What’s Real and What’s Not

Jan. 1, 2010
As a consultant, I am often challenged to help clients who are struggling with the number and severity of work-related Musculoskeletal disorders that their workers are experiencing.

In many cases, it is necessary to defeat what the organization previously assumed is “good ergonomics.” Ask anyone and you likely will get the response that good ergonomics means “chairs,” “how I sit,” “how I lift” or, in some very unfortunate instances, “Do you mean our stretching program?” If you don't believe me, try asking the question at your next social gathering.

The reasons for these perspectives vary widely, but I think it's because the word “ergonomics” has been hijacked in popular culture by marketers to describe the next “magical” product or to describe services, that, in reality, are not sound in the application of ergonomic principles. In short, I am very sorry to say that the term ergonomics has been relegated to a buzzword.

This view of ergonomics bothers me, not just because I'm a certified professional ergonomist, but because it prevents company managers from benefiting from what true ergonomics can do for them, their people and their profits.


A quick search on the Internet pops up many definitions of ergonomics. The International Ergonomics Association offers a very comprehensive definition: “The scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of interactions among humans and other elements of a system, and the profession that applies theory, principles, data and methods to design in order to optimize human well-being and overall system performance.”

I like this definition — it covers all the important bases and makes one feel noble in their profession. But, perhaps it's not simple enough and therefore not widely used. How about: “Designing the workplace to support the capabilities of people and job/task demands.” Or, even more simple: “Designing the job to fit the person.”

Please note that all three definitions include the term “design.” I point this out because the failure of many ergonomics programs can be traced to the fact that they never actually get to design the workplace. They are viewed solely as health and safety programs and so never engage the design people. The truth is, success lies in integrating ergonomics as a continuous improvement process where health and safety, engineering and product design all contribute to the activity and share in the benefit.


Through benchmarking studies, my colleagues and I have found that as companies begin to tackle the work-related musculoskeletal issue, they go through three levels of maturity: Reactive, Proactive and Advanced.

The Reactive Phase often is characterized by important procedural changes in injury investigation, documentation and the development of early reporting mechanisms and effective return-to-work processes. Some may bring in on-site physical or massage therapy resources and look to implement stretching programs and lifting training. Companies may see an initial improvement in incident rate and subsequent compensation costs. This reactive approach provides better administration and temporary relief, but the effort and investment must continue indefinitely because the root causes of the injuries never are addressed.

Unfortunately, in today's economy, this reactive improvement will not have a strong enough ROI to keep it going and the ergonomics program will be chalked up as not being effective; scuttled before it even gets to address workplace ergonomics.

The Proactive Phase is where companies begin to take a risk management approach to managing work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs). Here we see qualitative assessment tools and design guidelines being included in kaizen activity. We also see a standardized approach to quantitative risk assessment and job prioritization. But most importantly, improvements are designed and physical changes to equipment, workstation layout and tools are implemented to eliminate the root cause of the ergonomic risk.

When an ergonomic process includes all of these characteristics, substantial and sustainable improvements in injury incidence and costs are experienced. Similarly, a company can expect real gains in quality metrics, production flow and employee engagement. Clearly, the ROI of a program that makes it to the Proactive Phase makes good sense in any economy.

But we shouldn't stop here, as even greater gains and ROI with less effort are possible if we press on to the next phase.

In the Advanced Phase, you must change the perspective of engineers and designers. They must understand that their decisions impact the productivity, engagement and health of your employees as well as the quality of products and ultimately, the company's profitability. This is a weighty responsibility, and these people must be given the knowledge and tools to make better ergonomic decisions.

Attaining this advanced level may seem daunting, but if you methodically have progressed through the Reactive and Proactive Phases, you now have a lot of information at your fingertips. Use all of the lessons learned during these phases to develop design guidelines and standards and get this vital information to the engineers who design new equipment, tools, workstations and processes and to the product designers who make critical decisions regarding how your product goes together.

Remember, once trained, you are not giving these people more work by asking them make more choices and decisions. You are providing extremely valuable information to help them make better, more informed choices as they complete their design projects. And designers and engineers are no longer “designing in” or “buying in” or “building in” ergonomic risk that cannot be removed without a big disruption and big investment when your plant is running at full production.

The companies that can progress through this maturity curve quickly are driving workplace improvements, removing obstacles and taking advantages of opportunities to optimize the safety, quality and productivity of the work force. In fact, they are applying an engineering discipline to the intersection of people, work and the work environment. Not a bad exercise if you expect people to make productivity happen.

If it all makes such good sense, one may wonder what the holdup is. I think the holdup is being able to honestly answer the question, “How mature is our ergonomics process?”

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

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