Aches and pains are evidence of problems, but they’re not the root cause of them.
To really tackle musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), employers need to focus on the culture that allowed these injuries to initially occur. It’s hard work, and often it involves asking oneself difficult questions. But if a company is committed to its ergonomics program, the results can be impressive: fewer OSHA recordables, less lost time, higher productivity and a stronger safety culture.
EHS Today caught up with Kris Smith, managing member at GSC Consulting Services, about what she has learned about ergonomics and MSDs during her 40-plus years as an occupational therapist in industrial settings.
Smith will be speaking at the Safety Leadership Conference, being held from September 18-20 in Orlando, Florida. More information about the conference, including registration, can be found at www.safetyleadershipconference.com. Below is a preview of what to expect from Smith’s presentation.
EHS Today: How does workplace culture affect employee safety and well-being?
Kris Smith: If the workplace culture does not recognize the effects of safety through the work lifetime of its employees, then only a partial culture shift can take place. If employees are hired because they can demonstrate that they can safely meet the physical demands of the job, the workplace culture starts to reinforce safety at the time of hire. At the orientation and training phase, if correct work postures (BKMs) are taught—and expected—then safety is further integrated into the work habits of the employees.
As the employee moves through their work life, are there options for pre-shift warm ups, fitness center participation, health seminars and wellness information, on-site early symptom providers and so on? Encouragement for employees to participate furthers the culture of safety and value for each employee. If an injury or disability occurs, accommodation in a productive capacity can further the safety and timely return to full productivity while, again, reinforcing the value of the employee. Effective safety culture is integrated into the overall workplace culture of the company and the value it places on the employee.
In your experiences, what needs to change at the frontline to reduce MSDs? What about at the C-suite?
Change starts at the C-Suite level. If the site leadership views safety, ergonomics, health services and even employees as an expense versus revenue producers or cost savers, then programs that address these issues are not likely to be successful in achieving their goals. Programs may basically comply with OSHA, ISO or other credentialing standards but they are not truly effective in reducing cost.
By flipping the paradigm and looking at programs that can integrate into the overall culture and business strategy of the site, efforts at MSD reduction—the most frequent and severe industrial injuries—can reduce hiring costs, improve employee retention, improve productivity and quality, and reduce absences from work related or disability causes. By measuring direct and indirect costs, the return on investment (ROI) for programs that are truly effective will generally result in a positive ROI beyond the cost of the program and services rendered. Integrated programs and systems are the key to success.
Once ergonomics programs are in place and MSDs decline, what other changes have you noticed in employees, workplace culture and companies at large? If any of these changes surprised you, please explain how.
MSDs are part of the bigger picture, not just taking a day off to rest and recover. It’s about hiring the right person for the job, training correctly and supporting the employee through their work life with services and programs that offer education, training, and opportunities to share ideas and ways to reduce life’s aches and pains at work. It can all add up to improved employee morale, improved retention, improved quality and productivity, and a stable workforce that allows the company leadership to grow and add to their bottom line.
It seems like ergonomics has been in the zeitgeist recently. If you agree, what do you think are some reasons why?
The challenge for leadership and EHS professionals alike is to determine what the real value is for a particular ergonomic tool, system, program or modification. Once measurable key performance indicators (KPIs) can be established and implemented, then the true ROI and effectiveness can be determined.
Otherwise, there are too many options that address a small piece but not the entire spectrum of ergonomics and the long-term effect of anything implemented. Taking time to research, compare and present the analysis for objective eyes is a good start to determining the correct solution. Most importantly, looking at the macro versus micro spectrum of ergonomics in relationship to a company’s overall strategy is a more productive way to make effective changes.
It's easy to brush off aches and pains because we assume they're part of life. Why is it important that people speak up about their injuries and discomfort?
Aches and pains are common especially as we age, use incorrect body mechanics, or have an underlying medical issue that may compromise flexibility, strength, or conditioning. Because work is one-third to one-half of our daily available hours, common aches and pains can be aggravated by work activities.
These can become a problem for the company, co-workers and the employee to work at full productivity. Aches and pains are a leading cause of workplace absences and therefore, cause lost productivity, reduced employee morale or extra expense to “replace” the absent employee. Early symptom identification is the heart of injury prevention and remediation. Training, education, ergonomic changes and on-site services that can address these symptoms can be highly cost effective.
Why is it important for companies to address ergonomics concerns and not brush them aside?
A good ergonomics program starts with understanding the jobs. Not just the risks as is required by OSHA but by truly understanding the job as it should be done.
The U.S. Department of Labor created a guideline for this process called “The Handbook for Analyzing Jobs” that describes in detail—and with standardized terminology—how to record and objectify the essential functions, tasks, and elements of every job. Once the job is understood, then the process of understanding and addressing ergonomics issues, or the outliers that create risk, can be addressed. Now, an ergonomics program can truly address the areas that need to be corrected and a ROI can be qualified versus ignoring ergonomic issues because they are “too expensive,” “too time-consuming,” “would shut us down” or just plain “overwhelming.”
We have a good understanding of ergonomics. Why does the problem of MSDs persist despite this knowledge?
MDSs are a symptom—not the cause of the problem. Ergonomics are a bandage—not the solution. Until leadership understands the relationship between how the employee is the constant that is affected by HR, operations, safety and finance, a true cause and solution will not be found.
Ergonomics is just one spoke in the wheel of a strategic plan that will address overall productivity and profitability. IBM’s motto was, “The system is the answer.” This motto also applies to the issue of solving MSDs as much as hiring and retaining the right employees, operating at maximum productivity, and keeping employees safe.
What's one thing you hope attendees learn from your session at the Safety Leadership Conference?
Integration of goals into a strategic plan is how companies work at the highest, and hopefully the lowest, levels. If the entire company is on board with the mission, values and goals for the company, the company will not only succeed; it will also be an industry leader.
The integration of a workplace and safety culture should be tied together for the betterment of the employees and, therefore, for the betterment of the company. Our goal is to change perspectives, offer alternatives and flip the paradigm of traditional thinking to something bigger than just ergonomics or MSDs.