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Approaching Safety and Ergonomics Strategically

Strategy is not just for executives or others having to make survival decisions. It's a critical process for any safety leader interested in making substantial change happen, especially with thinning resources.

Strategy entails both vision and action. And vision is more than being able to vertically look ahead toward most-desired (or, at the least, minimally acceptable)outcomes.

It also encompasses a horizontal view: What are our competitors doing? Which aspects of our in-place interventions are working and which have listlessly sunk into the domain of diminishing returns? Which organizational forces currently block improvements and which are supporters? What are my own current leadership strengths and limitations for helping a considered intervention take root?

There's more to vision than the few mental points above. But don't neglect its legs; having an action bias toward making positive change occur elevates strategy above deskwork planning.

I suggest our role as safety leaders always includes creating alternate ways to effectively tackle nagging and costly injuries. Go beyond what's been previously done if you want to see different results.

Let's apply a strategic approach to a costly problem : ergonomic, soft-tissue injuries.

Keep in mind that how you initially look at a problem can funnel you into a limited set of solutions. For example, some have defined ergonomics as redesigning or positioning work environment or tools to fit the worker. This limits an approach to engineering the environment to fix selected problems.

You can start opening up your thinking by remembering that ergonomics literally means the science (-nomics) of work (from the Greek word 'ergon").

Here's my "strategic" definition of ergonomics: improving the fit between people and their work (to improve safety, productivity and morale). This paradigm opens up three different approaches:

  • Bringing work "closer" to people (through design, redesign, positioning, etc.);
  • Bringing people "closer" to their work (through improving mental skills of attention control, risk assessment, judgment, team focus, etc., and physical skills of improved coordination, leverage, balance, flexibility, range of motion and more); and
  • Bringing work closer to people as well as people closer to their work.

This last approach is most preferred. For example, it is more efficient, whenever possible, to take the stuck lid off a jar by twisting the bottom clockwise and the lid counterclockwise (rather than just holding the bottom stationery while working on the top).

Strategists see the strengths and limitations in any approach. For example, a design-oriented strategy has the advantages of addressing risks associated with a specific location, workstation or tool, being easily planned into new facilities, operations or equipment to reduce exposures, relying minimally on worker compliance, requiring less release/training time, being in-place for changing shifts and new workers.

The limitations? It can be costly to redesign each specific workstation or tool, may disrupt operations (require downtime) to retool or implement redesign; can deteriorate into safety hazards (think of worn-down nonskid mats with curling-up edges); and might require accommodation by workers. (I've seen a situation where introducing recoilless rivet guns actually exacerbated those hand and arm injuries they was purchased to prevent - until riveters were trained how to gauge the different kinesthetic feel of setting the rivet with the new tool).

And this approach is limited to reducing readily controlled risks. Redesign is less likely to help those exposed to the elements (making deliveries, working in outdoor locations or on the loading dock), to people whose at-home tooling and environmental exposures contribute to cumulative trauma or where redesign won't cost-effectively work (e.g. maintenance workers who have to work in contorted positions to service large machines).

Consider a strategic human factors approach.

Disadvantages of this strategy are that it relies on effective communication and training to motivate use of and to transfer new skills; requires a work force able to receive communication (are there language or other blockages?); necessitates time away from job tasks for training and reinforcement; can be logistically challenging for multiple sites (especially where facilities have few employees); and is not automatically in place for new hires.

But if you've already run the route of designing out what you can, bringing work closer to their work:

  • Can help with difficult-to-control environments;
  • Is portable to wherever people are - in multiple locations and environments, at work and at home; and
  • Can boost involvement and morale while heightening worker abilities that transfer to other needed arenas.

Strategists don't throw out the baby with the bath water. Equipping workers with new strategies and techniques (as well as the motivation to apply them at work and at home) will never make a poorly designed job great. But, when well done, it can at least make a poorly designed job much less bad.

By applying dispassionate strategic thinking with a bias toward vision and positive action you can begin the process of breaking through plateaus of safety performance.

Robert Pater ([email protected], is managing director of Portland, Ore.-based Strategic Safety Associates.

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