Workplace injuries and their associated costs particularly are burdensome as their impacts are wide ranging. For businesses, the impacts are experienced in areas of finance, productivity, competitiveness and employee morale. For workers, household finances and quality of life are affected. In 2011, and in the next two decades, these impacts have the potential to be greatly magnified as an increasing number of America's baby boomers approach retirement age.
In this day and age, many organizations go to great lengths to reduce workplace risk, prevent injuries and promote safety and awareness. The cost of not doing so simply has become too great.
There are many areas in which safety efforts are focused. Among them are the establishment of company-specific safety procedures and protocols, education, employee wellness and ergonomics. Accordingly, it is my experience that all workplace injuries ultimately are the result of a breakdown in what is called the “BEEA+ Paradigm” that consists of the following four key areas: biophysics, ergonomics, education and awareness. It is the last of these areas, ergonomics, on which I will focus here.
The sheer scope and breadth of ergonomics as a concept can be daunting for an organization trying to create an ergonomic program. Whether it's for office ergonomics or for ergonomics in the industrial setting, there are several components — leadership, team, sustainability, data management and management support — that are critical to your ergonomics program being successful.
While contracting with outside ergonomic consultants often is the best path to get your ergonomics program off the ground, allowing them to coach from afar as needed, you may find that dependence on them for the long term proves to be unnecessary and cost prohibitive. It also is my experience that the best ergonomic teams often are the ones consisting of companies' own employees. After all, who better to identify the risks in a given work environment than the very employees who work there?
First and foremost, a leader for your ergonomic team must be selected. Without a leader, it can be very difficult for decisions to be made and for your ergonomic team to be effective in its mission.
Nomination of your leader must be a function of his or her willingness to accept this role and leadership ability. However, willingness and ability are not the only characteristics your leader will need. Ideally, he or she also should possess some experience in safety or ergonomics.
However, since having personnel with such experience not always is possible for every organization intent on having an ergonomics program, there is the option of contracting with outside ergonomics professionals to train your designated leader. Your leader then can function as the trainer for the members of your ergonomic team.
As mentioned above, it often is best to recruit an ergonomic team from among your own ranks. As is the case with selecting your team leader, your team members also should be willing participants who want to have a stake in the team's mission and success.
Your team ultimately should consist of various employee classifications as well: hourly vs. salaried, union vs. non-union and office vs. shop floor workers. Workers from various departments should be represented as well, because with a spectrum of employees on the team, everybody's paradigms and contributions to group discussions are represented.
As it relates to team members participating and contributing, the group ultimately must be a “safe” place where members can speak freely and respectfully, without concern for sensitive issues communicated. If there is a perception that there are consequences for speaking openly, meaningful discussion will be stymied and opportunities will be missed to reduce ergonomic risk.
For your ergonomics program to be effective over the long term, its vision, purpose and processes must be well defined and sustainable. Perhaps easiest to develop are the vision and purpose of the program. It is the processes that will require more up-front effort to create, though doing so will pay dividends in the long run as far as sustainability of your program.
Over time, members will invariably join and leave your team. As is the case with any other position in your facility, it is the standardized recruiting and training procedures you put in place that allow for the most seamless transitions when new personnel are brought on. In fact, it is a good practice to continually identify and recruit prospective ergonomic team members from among your work force, even when there is not an immediate need for additional members. Having this practice in place ensures that there is a pool of candidates from which to select when the need arises.
A major factor in the initial and long-term effectiveness of an ergonomic team is how efficiently and how thoroughly the charter members, as well as future new members, can be trained to identify risk. Again, it is in the area of training the team leader and new members that contracting with outside consultants will help get your program up and running smoothly. After that, your team leader and core team become the trainers for new recruits and ensure they possess the necessary competencies to be effective risk assessors.
An ergonomic data management mechanism is needed for a number of reasons. Among them are the need to document your team's processes, to hold team members accountable to tasks, to record and store risk assessment findings and to document the effectiveness of the ergonomic solutions you put in place.
Furthermore, a comprehensive risk assessment tool that identifies both human and environmental factors is critical to the successful identification and mitigation of workplace risk. Because a thorough, in-depth risk assessment tool can be difficult to create on your own, using one from an outside consultant or vendor can be the easiest and most cost-effective way to get started.
To best manage your ergonomic data, there are a number of third-party software options available. In choosing software that will work best for you, look for a package that offers real-time reporting of “first reports” and risk issues as they arise, that allows for collaboration between your internal and external resources for standardization of procedures, that allows you to manage risk according to various risks' severity and that provides these capabilities in a secure, HIPAA-compliant fashion.
Finally, for your ergonomic program to produce meaningful results, it must have the full support of upper management. Management must be willing to listen to the ergonomic team's findings and implement the suggested fixes whenever possible. Management's support is a clear demonstration to every employee that leadership is committed to reducing risk and to the safety and health of the work force.
When used in conjunction with the three other key elements of the BEEA+ paradigm, biophysics, education and awareness, a strong ergonomics program will be an integral part of your facility's overall risk reduction strategy. Establishing an ergonomics team is a great way to get employees from within your own ranks involved with and committed to workplace injury prevention. Employee involvement becomes infectious and it also goes a long way towards establishing and enhancing your facility's safety culture.
Benjamin Harris is a licensed physical therapist and a program director for InjuryFree Inc. InjuryFree is a national firm specializing in workplace risk reduction, providing jobsite employee maintenance centers, ergonomic training programs and ergonomic software solutions. To learn more about InjuryFree, visit http://www.injuryfree.com.