Fitting Ergonomics into Your Company’s Workstyle

May 3, 2006
Today’s most effective organizational leaders are recognizing that sound ergonomic practices provide an environment that supports employee well-being and good morale

Hand cramps? Backache? Eye strain? U.S. and global workers are at risk of experiencing some form of work-related musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) throughout their career, whether it’s due to material handling in manufacturing settings, patient/resident handling in hospitals and long-term care facilities, or static postures with extended keyboarding in office environments. MSDs - disorders of muscles, nerves, tendons, joints, cartilage, and spinal disks that are not caused by motor vehicle accidents or slips, trips, and falls - are impacting corporate America to the tune of billions of dollars in annual medical costs, lost wages, and reduced productivity. Therefore, today’s most effective organizational leaders are recognizing that sound ergonomic practices in the workplace provide an environment that supports employee well-being and good morale. “These business leaders know that effective ergonomics in the workplace is critical, and that it certainly has a huge impact on worker injury and illness rates while enabling the production of higher-quality goods and services,” says Rudy Suzich, loss control director at Novato, CA-based Fireman’s Fund Insurance Co.

Jonathan Puleio, Eastern Region ergonomist at New York City-based Humanscale, concurs with this assessment, noting that less than 5 percent of the population has had an actual injury as a result of ergonomic design. “We also know, however, that more than 50 percent of the population is working with at least one warning sign of a musculoskeletal injury,” he adds. “What we’re seeing in the field is that there’s a dramatic shift from addressing ergonomic risk factors and musculoskeletal risk factors from a reactionary perspective to a much more proactive approach. This is good news, because ergonomics as a discipline is a preventive design-based science.”

As a facilities professional tasked with supporting worker health and productivity issues, it is imperative that you champion a long-term commitment to ergonomics within your organization. Buildings provides the basics of a good ergonomics program - gathered from a number of available resources - that you can tweak to fit your company’s workstyle.

Key Elements of an Effective Program
Fireman’s Fund offers a three-pronged approach to an effective ergonomics program:

  • Leadership buy-in and employee participation. “Management must show it is committed and prepared to play a leadership role,” says Suzich. “Then, such a commitment must be integrated into the safety and productivity goals of the company. It isn’t production vs. safety; it’s safe production.”
  • Job-hazard analysis. “Here, we identify and prioritize jobs with the greatest ergonomic exposures,” explains Suzich. “This involves an analysis of each job and its related hazards and exposures (using information from OSHA, group medical information, etc.) to help decide which jobs need to be evaluated and prioritized first.” According to a Fireman’s Fund’s Loss Control Insights report, a key element of this analysis is to survey employees for information on their general comfort while performing daily tasks.
  • Hazard information and risk reporting. “Employees need to be educated in how to identify [ergonomic] risk factors and the signs or symptoms of work-related MSDs,” notes Suzich. “We encourage them to promptly report injuries or situations that could lead to injuries, and get them involved to help make the appropriate changes needed to head off any potential loss sources.”

Following those action items, however, isn’t enough. According to Fireman’s Fund, companies must also:

  • Establish procedures to assure that individuals with similar ergonomic complaints are treated in a similar manner.
  • Provide employees, supervisors, and managers with regularly scheduled training on the recognition, evaluation, and control of ergonomic risk factors.
  • Create and implement an ongoing and periodic evaluation of the ergonomic program.

Involvement in the Program
Suzich notes that the word “program” suggests a beginning and an end; he prefers the term “system.” “An effective ergonomics system for an organization must be carefully thought out in the design stage of the operation and/or facilities,” he explains. “This is a good time to enlist ergonomic specialists, industrial and design engineers with an appreciation for ergonomics, and, of course, top and middle management. Most importantly, get the workers themselves involved; they know what’s happening, what the interactions are right at the point of operations.

“Once a system is set up, there should be regularly scheduled reviews and audits of the workplace. Periodically, it’s enlightening to take a step back and objectively assess the situation. This is where one might want to engage an insurance carrier loss control consultant, an ergonomist, or another qualified safety professional to get their candid, objective viewpoint. And, once you get that, you have to be prepared to act upon it.”

Humanscale’s Puleio notes that some of the best programs are being developed in large corporations because they have the ability to assemble cross-functional teams. “Large companies can put a human resources professional in the room with a facilities manager, an architect or designer, a health and safety person, and a purchasing agent,” he says. “These resources offer multi-dimensional perspectives.” The shared data also helps in documenting benefits and can be very useful in justifying the need for an ergonomics program.

Puleio cautions, however, that success is only ensured when a combination of improved design and an effective training program are used. “Alone, design or technology won’t offer a complete solution. Neither will training in and of itself. You can give a person all the ergonomic tools in the world, but if those tools are used incorrectly, their benefits will not be realized.”

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