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Don’t Just Manage Musculoskeletal Disorders, Drive Performance through Ergonomics

March 5, 2012
A recent benchmarking study revealed that most companies think they are further along in their ergonomics process than they actually are. Don’t fall into that trap.

When I was a kid, I thought I was a pretty good athlete. My grandfather reminded me (regularly) that I was a big fish in a little pond, so that I would move up the leagues and get to the next level of competition. At first, I was amazed and intimidated by the athletes I encountered. But over time, my performance would improve, and I again would fall into the trap of thinking I had made it to my peak performance. Enter Grandpa…

This mindset is common. The key to avoiding this performance trap is to continually be on the lookout for people who do things better than you, identify what makes them better and then work on surpassing them. In sports, this comparison is called competition; in business, we call it benchmarking.

While conducting Humantech’s latest benchmarking study, which analyzed how companies implement their ergonomics programs, my colleagues and I discovered a common belief: most companies thought they were further along in their process than they actually were. We also found that most organizations’ anticipated results or outcomes were the same – to prevent, reduce and treat musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) – but their approaches differed. Thankfully, the companies that performed the best at reducing MSDs used a combination of the approaches, as we’ll discuss here.

For those who have seen presentations or have read articles written by my colleagues or me, you may recognize our Ergonomics Maturity Curve, which was developed from the findings of our benchmarking studies. The curve illustrates the evolutionary process companies go through as they develop sustainable success in the reduction of MSDs. The key is to keep your program moving toward the top right corner of the graph.

To keep the program moving in the right direction, you must first evaluate the current program and develop opportunities to simplify practices and improve efficiency, while focusing on the desired results. The five primary approaches companies used to reduce MSDs can be linked to the phases of the maturity curve.

Reactive Phase

The first approach is obvious: “Fix the person.” When a person first experiences an MSD, he or she must be diagnosed and treated for the ailment and then the cause must be identified and changed. In other words, the action causing the injury must be stopped; the employee must find a different way to do the job but not lose efficiency in the process.

This approach is known as medical management, a reactive program to reduce the losses due to injuries. The need for good medical management totally is dependent on the exposure to MSD risk factors in the workplace and the effectiveness of the ergonomics, fitness and job placement programs in place.

Preventive Phase

The next approach companies may take is to “fit the person to the job.” This approach focuses on the individual person, measuring their physical abilities (strength, reach, range of motion) and matching their individual capabilities to the task. To do so, companies must complete a physical demands analysis (PDA) to develop functional job descriptions for each job. Next, a pre-work screening is conducted to understand the capabilities of a prospective employee. Last, the person’s capabilities are matched to the functional job descriptions.

This practice was in favor in the 1960s through the early 1980s, but appears to be waning. Typically, these programs are deployed by companies with significant variability in their work environment, and they tend to match people with tasks, such as manual material handling and/or field service work.

The limit of this approach is that if you have too many functional job descriptions that are beyond the capabilities of people you have, you’re stuck. So, many organizations begin to work toward the next approach.

The “change the person” approach is implemented when it is difficult to match employees to a given environment. This approach is based on changing the capabilities, fitness and stamina of the person doing the work. Companies may incorporate stretching, exercise and conditioning programs to improve wellness in the workplace, so that people are better able to do the work. This approach works only if all participants are willing to perform to par and have the physical capability to do so.

According to our research, it has been a challenge getting people to participate in stretching and wellness programs. In addition, the effectiveness of company-mandated stretching programs has not proven to be effective in the prevention of MSDs. Unfortunately, employers have little influence over a person’s health and wellness, and have no control of their pre-existing conditions.

Another tactic in the “change the person” approach is attempting to get people to behave differently (known as behavioral modification) in hopes of reducing exposure to MSD risk factors. Some companies may implement behavior- based safety programs, training and awareness campaigns, and education initiatives focusing on proper body mechanics to inspire change. These strategies are intended to empower an individual to change their perception of work and risk, and to change the way in which they perform work throughout the day, week and even through the duration of their career.

Unfortunately, even when behaviors do change, they rarely have a sustainable impact on preventing exposure to MSD risk factors. Managers in our benchmarking studies have expressed frustration in getting people to use safe working practices.

While it is clear that all of these activities have merit and should be considered as part of your MSD prevention plan, by definition none of them are ergonomics.

The definition presented by NIOSH is a pretty good one: Ergonomics is “the science of fitting workplace conditions and job demands to the capabilities of the working population. Ergonomics is an approach or solutions to deal with a number of problems – among them are work-related musculoskeletal disorders.” This is the proactive phase where the top performers in our benchmarking studies focus the majority of their efforts. Proactive Phase The proactive phase involves quantifying the risk factors that cause MSDs and then prioritizing them according to their rank within your operation. Once the risk factors are identified, plans are put in place to “fix the job” by modifying the layout or design of existing workstations, tools and equipment to fit the people (population) doing the work.

The first priority is to implement engineering controls based on what we know about the physiological (endurance), biomechanical (strength), anatomical (stature) and psychological (perception/decision) capabilities of humans, and making adjustments and changes to the physical workplace to ensure maximum performance. To effectively do this, one must design the workplace to fit the 5th percentile female to the 95th percentile male. This will reduce or prevent exposure to MSD risk factors for all workers. Through our research and benchmarking studies, we’ve found this approach to be the most effective and efficient way to reduce MSDs and drive process performance. Additionally, it enables employers to maintain their influence on their workplace and maintain control within their facility.

A secondary level of control is administrative controls. These include changes to work planning like job rotation, instituting rest breaks and allowing for a slower pace. If managed correctly, this phase can reduce exposure time to problematic tasks, in turn reducing the onset of MSDs, but not necessarily reducing their occurrence.

Advanced Phase

The most comprehensive programs have emphasized activities in the advanced phase. This is where you “fix the future” by placing ergonomic design standards in the hands of engineers, procurement and facility planners during the design, build and test phase of manufacturing, process, equipment, facility or office planning. This is where the true efficiency in MSD prevention and system performance is achieved. Think about all the time, effort, money and, particularly, suffering, that can be avoided by designing the work environment with human capability in mind – before a worker ever gets there.

My colleagues and I agree that a comprehensive MSD prevention plan must have elements of all the approaches described above. The key to sustainable reductions in MSDs is using ergonomics to push your process up to the top right corner of the Ergonomics Maturity Curve.

So my question this month is: “Do you still just want to manage MSDs?”

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

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