Ergonomics is the Best Policy

The industry doesn't need more regulations; it just needs workplaces to practice good ergonomics.

As 2009 winds down, we can look back at how we persistently have been challenged to change our personal and professional spending habits with the aim of doing more with less. But with the worst of the economic trouble seemingly (and hopefully) behind us, now is the time for companies to rejuvenate and regain lost ground in their health and safety processes.

One of the first steps in any planning process is to understand the current state of the regulatory environment. No doubt you have read or heard discussions regarding intended changes at OSHA, including improved oversight of the Voluntary Protection Program. There also has been speculation about reviving the push for an ergonomics standard. In Michigan, an ergonomics standard is nearing acceptance and would join California's repetitive motion injuries standard as one of only two state standards.

As an ergonomics engineer and consultant, you might think that I would be in favor of an ergonomics standard. Clearly, any activity that draws informed attention to ergonomic injuries or work-related musculoskeletal disorders and encourages employers to take proper steps to systematically reduce risk in their workplaces is good. But, perhaps oddly, I am ambivalent to the presence or absence of a regulatory mechanism for ergonomics.

Pros and Cons

On one hand, I see the advantage of setting a standard to prevent work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs) in the workplace. Injuries are debilitating. They rob employers of skilled workers, rob employees of their health and negatively impact the quality of their home life.

A standard, by definition, would prescribe a common set of expectations for employer activity which, when implemented, should set the stage for an evolution in safety performance. With better performance will come best practices, and progress inevitably will be made towards the reduction of WMSDs at work. Or so the theory goes.

On the other hand, a regulatory standard, again by definition, creates a minimal performance threshold, and there is the danger in setting the bar too low. As a lowest-common-denominator approach, ergonomics standards tend to emphasize reaction to injuries, not getting ahead of the problem and proactively reducing the risks that cause the injuries.

In business, opportunities and risks often are evaluated by weighing the potential impact on the business and the likelihood of occurrence. Ergonomic injuries are serious, and I don't believe any business leader in America intentionally sets out to have a hazardous workplace. But in this context, will an ergonomics standard be any more effective than the general duty clause at creating change?

Choosing the Right Tool

Maybe a regulatory standard for WMSDs is the wrong tool for the job. A standard will position ergonomics as a hurdle to overcome rather than a process that will create tangible value for an organization. It will be a real setback if a standard removes the worthwhile need to present an ergonomics process as an investment with real returns.

The fact is, good ergonomics works. A review of data presented at recent conferences demonstrates that occupational ergonomics initiatives focused on the engineering and design of the workplace and its tools reduce injury rates and cut costs. Sixty-nine case studies presented by Fortune 500 company representatives at various conferences demonstrate that:

  • WMSD lost work days are down 80% overall;

  • WMSD rates are down 81% overall;

  • Workers' compensation costs are down 70%;

  • Incidence rates are down 55%.

Similarly, companies have reported remarkable project-specific success, including the following average improvements:

  • Productivity is up 62%;
  • Cycle time is down 44%;
  • Cost of quality is down $942,805.

This review illustrates excellent results achieved without a standard. And, these improvement programs have been deployed across industries successfully and repeatedly.

The risks that cause WMSD challenges are well known, and these are problems that can be solved. Ergonomics principles wisely applied improve both safety and performance. And, frankly, if your company leadership thinks that your ergonomics program will cost money, you are not doing it right.

Note that neither lean nor Six Sigma requires laws to be widely accepted and implemented. Repeated demonstrations of value to the bottom line position these concepts as keys to success in today's competitive environment.

James Mallon is a vice president at Humantech (www.humantech.com), a consulting firm specializing in workplace ergonomics. This article originally appeared in MHM's sister publication, EHSToday (www.EHStoday.com).

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