Good Ergonomics is Good Economics

July 1, 2009
Are you ready for takeoff once the economy recovers?

Is anyone else ready for 2009 to be over? We all have suffered the consequences of this economy. Budgets have dried up, EHS staffs have been reduced and we're all being stretched to do more with less.

The good news is that many experts anticipate the financial markets will show signs of a sustained recovery sometime in the second half of 2009. But it would be foolish to assume that it will be “business as usual.” Big changes have moved in — the new reality is that all programs and investments will be scrutinized for their impact on the business and the return on investment, so we must do an even better job of demonstrating the value of EHS to our organizations.

The challenges we face as EHS professionals are great. Consider:

  • The state of your EHS organization — Chances are, there are fewer people in it.
  • The shape of your EHS programs — Are they in maintenance mode, stalled or even suspended?
  • The state of your workplace and equipment — Was there an investment in improvements and upgrades in 2008 and 2009?
  • The work force demographics — It's likely that you have fewer employees, and a greater percentage of those remaining have gray hair due to the role seniority plays in work force reduction and retirement delays caused by the recession.

So what happens as the economy recovers and your company begins to ramp up production — are we going to be doing even more with less? What effect is that going to have on injury and illness rates and their associated costs?

With these big changes and challenges comes big opportunity. You now have the chance to reposition health and safety and to develop a team that can fulfill a strategic role in creating workplaces that attract the best workers and keep them healthy and productive throughout their careers. Better yet, these challenges are not insurmountable!


It's been my experience that most injury incidents and their inherent costs are caused by a mismatch in task requirements and human capability. This is confirmed by the most recent Workplace Safety Index produced by Liberty Mutual, which included a listing of the top 10 causes of the most disabling workplace injuries. The No. 1 cause was overexertion (i.e., lifting, carrying, pushing, pulling, etc.), which accounted for 25.7 percent of the estimated $48.6 billion of direct workers' compensation costs to U.S. businesses. The simple conclusion is that our workplaces are demanding more power than human muscles and joints can give.

So there is a human reason for a strategic EHS vision, but what about the business reason? The link between injury and illness rates and company performance is strong. Quality suffers when worker efforts are great; productivity suffers when a worker's body positions are awkward and employee engagement suffers when pain is in the workplace.

W. Edwards Deming, the renowned statistician and quality guru, knew this to be so and included this among his 14 key principles for transforming business effectiveness:

12. Remove the barriers that rob hourly workers, and people in management, of their right to pride of workmanship.

With employee engagement at one end of the spectrum and employee alienation at the other, we would be wise to understand the power of the punishing workplace. Painful job designs and jobs that strip us of our sense of control build those barriers.

The key to controlling these injuries and costs lies in designing tasks, tools and the workplace to support human capabilities and therefore allow them to perform at their best. In short, good ergonomics is good economics.

Here are three actions you can take over the next few months to ensure that your ergonomics process is ready for takeoff once the economy begins to recover and funding for projects and people becomes available again:

  1. Understand your current state.

    a. Assess your team's skills. Take the time to complete an inventory of the “people resources” in your organization. Do the safety and engineering staff have the skills, abilities and tools to effectively measure ergonomic risk factors and design or change the workplace to fit the capabilities of the work force?

    b. Identify hot spots in your plant. A quantitative risk assessment, one that focuses on posture, force, frequency and duration, allows you to understand the scope of your problem. Knowing where your issues are will help you focus your resources and make a stronger case for investment in workplace improvements.

    c. Identify upcoming opportunities for EHS to make an impact. Are there plans for new equipment or expansion of manufacturing lines? Better to get involved up front, before risks or hazards are introduced and you must spend your time reactively managing the negative outcomes (such as injury or illness) and trying to countermeasure risks by retrofitting work stations.

  2. Look for partners.

    a. Don't re-invent the wheel. Understand where and on what initiatives you can piggyback your EHS agenda. What group in your organization drives change? Find those people and educate them on the practices, standards and guidelines.

    b. Provide workstation and tool design guidelines to your engineering communities. These people have the most control over the design of the workplace; giving them rules to follow will allow them to design for safety and ergonomics the first time. Upfront design is key and the earlier safety concerns are addressed, the cheaper and easier it is to get what you need in place.

  3. Gain active endorsement from your company leadership.

    a. Look for ways to support the strategic goals of your company with your EHS agenda.

    b. Make the case that a better, safer workplace not only reduces injuries and costs, but also contributes to the success of your organization by helping attract the best employees and keeping the most experienced and skilled members of your team working.

    c. Demonstrate how your EHS process supports people's performance, enhances quality and increases productivity.

Now is the time to prepare your organization to be in the position for action when budgets are restored and demand increases. Today's business climate is an opportunity for EHS managers to leverage the impact, effectiveness and value of their operations. Are you in position?

James Mallon, CPE, is a vice president with Humantech. By combining the science of ergonomics and a “30-Inch View” — where people, work and environment intersect — 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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