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Working Smarter: Drive Operational Excellence through Enterprise Ergonomics

By adopting an enterprise-wide approach to ergonomics, organizations can move the needle on workplace safety, incident reduction, employee productivity and efficiency.

The impetus for an ergonomics intervention can come from several different disciplines within an organization, including safety, engineering, operations, risk management, claims management and human resources. While a one-off initiative can help resolve a specific issue as needed, a holistic enterprise-wide approach to ergonomics can have far more profound and sustainable effects on injury prevention, productivity, risk/exposure mitigation and cost reduction.

For starters, adopting an enterprise approach requires management and operations executives to understand that ergonomics has a strategic place in the organization. It involves far more than reactive one-off fixes or designing safety awareness training for groups of employees. In fact, enterprise ergonomics initiatives begin with a focus on corporate business objectives and the development of a programmed approach that is fully aligned with those objectives.

In presenting the potential benefits to leadership, it’s important to demonstrate this alignment in terms of anticipated cost savings and ROI. It’s also worth emphasizing that from a strategic perspective enterprise-wide approaches to ergonomics facilitate continuous improvement initiatives and help drive operational excellence.

Tactically, there’s a place for isolated ergonomics projects to address acute issues; enterprise ergonomics represents a way to proactively avoid issues in the first place or to minimize the frequency and severity of incidents that do occur. 

IMPLEMENTING ENTERPRISE ERGONOMICS

Once leadership has been engaged, a cross-functional team—involving members of safety, engineering, operations, HR, wellness, claims and risk management—can be created and mobilized to develop an ergonomics action plan that’s focused on delivering measurable results and driving down the organization’s cost of risk.

The steps involved in developing and implementing an enterprise ergonomics program include: working across the organization to identify and develop solutions to address issues associated with different job functions; evaluating unique issues and special opportunities related to workforce demographics, such as meeting the special needs of aging workers; establishing consistent frameworks for testing and implementing solutions at multiple locations; monitoring progress and facilitating continuous improvement, and communicating results.

Working across the organization. Within any enterprise, many different professional disciplines may “touch” ergonomics in one way or another, albeit often with differing objectives, goals or measures of success. For instance, safety may focus on injury or incident prevention; operations, on productivity gains; and different functional areas within the human resources, such as employee development, return to work accommodation, health/wellness, and job satisfaction; and risk management, on reduction of frequency and severity of employee injuries as well as claims management activities. Indeed, there’s overlap in their varied priorities and objectives. 

And specific ergonomics assessments and solutions can be applied to address each of their needs and priorities. 

Evaluating the impact of workforce demographics. In many cases, aging workers are among the most valued and productive segments within an employee population, bringing knowledge, experience and high levels of productivity to their various roles. Nonetheless, as workers age they may have special needs that often can be addressed by ergonomic solutions.

For instance, ergonomic approaches can be applied to address such issues as range of motion limitations, vision or hearing loss, strength and various other physical challenges that may be present in some older workers. Similarly, solutions may be used to address workplace challenges experienced by individuals with arthritis, obesity or diabetes, among other medical conditions. 

Establishing consistent frameworks for solution development. One of the most significant opportunities for ergonomics professionals to bring value to an enterprise involves engaging their expertise in the early stages of process design and product development. Notably, ergonomists can collaborate with engineers and work within established guidelines to explore options available to identify, eliminate and/or minimize risk factors. 

Parameters to be addressed by ergonomics include anthropometric (physiological, gender and population percentile) data points, such as reach and distance, clearance and openings, heights, force, and repetition. Similarly, ergonomics professionals can collaborate with their human resources counterparts to identify the uses of physical demand assessments (PDAs) in support of worker accommodations in return-to-work situations. In the selection and hiring process, the PDA document can be used to establish a post-offer employment testing protocol to increase the likelihood that new hires are physically able to complete the documented physical requirements of a specific job.

Work environment retrofits and redesigns. While the application of ergonomics solutions during the early design and development stages often is optimal, in many cases ergonomics must be deployed to address issues that arise in existing work environments due to the introduction of new technology or changes in the composition of the workforce when the demographics of the workforce shifts—either through the opening of a new facility, merger, acquisition, or as a result of the relocation of a facility or a move into an existing operation.

Monitoring progress and facilitating continuous improvement. Depending on the type of operation involved and the availability of new data, progress should be tracked monthly, quarterly, or continuously. As mentioned, ergonomics applications can affect employee productivity, performance, absenteeism and satisfaction, as well as injury and/or claim frequency and severity. At the same time, however, the ergonomics initiative must take into account issues related to functional priorities and responsibilities within an organization, such as operations taking ownership of corrective actions, risk management focused on claim resolution and the impact of claims on insurance costs, and safety programs targeting incident prevention. 

Even with the establishment and mobilization of a cross-functional team, discrete success guideposts may need to be established by individual disciplines, including EHS, human resources, risk management, finance and operations. Accordingly, different metrics may be applied to specific ergonomics solutions. 

Results as defined by each discipline may be benchmarked against previous experience on a month-over-month or period-over-period basis, comparable periods to account for seasonality, as well as established industry standards. The evaluation process should uncover areas where significant or steady improvements are being made, as well as those where more attention is needed. In this way, ergonomics initiatives can be prioritized to facilitate continuous improvement across the enterprise. 

Communicating results. Success stories may be developed specifically for individual disciplines for sharing by peers within the organization, as well as on a more holistic basis for reporting to leadership. Financial and human impacts—including improvements in productivity, efficiency and employee satisfaction—should be tracked regularly, documented and shared with leadership as well as among all stakeholders within the cross-disciplinary team. 

Employees should be aware of results from the outset. Whether or not all employees are directly involved with specific ergonomics actions, they should be made aware that they play critical roles in making the workplace safer and more productive for themselves and each of their colleagues.

MOVING THE NEEDLE ON WORKPLACE SAFETY

By adopting an enterprise-wide approach to ergonomics, organizations can move the needle on workplace safety, injury and incident reduction, employee productivity, efficiency and satisfaction, as well as claims management, and potentially achieve reduced insurance costs. 

While leadership’s support is vital to get these initiatives started on sound footing, their ongoing success relies on the collaboration achieved through the establishment of cross-disciplinary teams, as well as the engagement of employees at all levels. It also calls for the frequent monitoring of progress and reporting of results so that they can be understood and appreciated by leadership and used by individual disciplines to recalibrate priorities, facilitate continuous improvement and drive toward operational excellence.

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