July 18th, 2012

Ergonomics – It’s Still the Right Thing to Do

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Not long ago, I frequently encountered views of workplace ergonomics as “fluff.” After a long day of training in a meatpacking plant, which had high rates of hand, arm, and back injuries, and a 300 percent annual turn-over in its workforce, I asked the plant superintendent what he thought of it all.

He replied in a pleasant, but work weary tone, “That stuff is nice and all Phil but my job is to kill hogs.”  That was my fault.  I had failed to make the connection, at least to that individual, of how ergonomics could help his company do their job better.  I had erred on the side of being too qualitative about ergonomics.

In recent years, I have run into more of the other extreme; people who demand rigorous, quantitative proof that a particular control will yield specific financial results.  This may be in the form of an industrial engineer who is interested in changes only if it will “save a man;” this phrase having nothing to do with the body or soul of a specific worker (who is as likely to be a woman, despite the terminology), but only in permanently eliminating their wages from the payroll.

Don’t get me wrong.  A clear cost/benefit analysis is essential on many parts of larger capital projects, but it can often be an impediment for many basic interventions where the cost and effort to perform the analysis exceed the same spent to implement the control.

The impediment may also be in the form of a manager who comments that an intervention may be considered when it can be “cost justified” according to rigid and set financial rules, despite recent evidence that creative accounting thrives in the boardroom, and that many companies may make their biggest investments based on intuition.

Companies know that “soft” issues such as aesthetics, image, and attitude matter in the workplace, yet many people in the safety and health field seem to feel uncomfortable if they can’t produce the same type of hard metrics as production supervisors.  It is inherently difficult to estimate the costs of injuries and incidents which were prevented, but there is a clear moral and ethical obligation to undertake activities which reduce the risk of those events.  Rather than taking an apologetic posture, our message should reflect the certainty and tone of character actor Wilford Brimley’s tag line: “It's the right thing to do.”
Too often, ergonomics becomes associated with “features” and gimmicks, such as the number of knobs on a chair, or the latest keyboard design. Sometimes the benefits of ergonomics are extolled strictly in the language of productivity.  But the rationale or justification for preventing workplace injuries, whether chronic or acute, should not take a backseat to the ancillary or related benefits.  People count.  And we need to promote that message in words that are easy to understand.

Often, I am confronted with the mantra, “That which gets measured gets managed.”  I assume that this is someone fresh from a training course on total quality management, Six Sigma, or some type of similar management initiative.  Not that there is anything necessarily wrong with any of these approaches, or that ergonomics cannot fit in.  But a focus on neatly quantifiable, and readily available data, at the expense and exclusion of all other information, is bound to fail when people are involved.

In a skirmish of slogans, I choose to counter with, “Not everything that counts can be counted — not everything that can be counted counts,” a statement I have heard attributed to Albert Einstein (a whiz with things which can be quantified), although I have been unable to confirm this.

Due to the outcome of recent U.S. elections, some in the field of ergonomics might be tempted to retreat or even run for cover.  Mandatory ergonomics standards appear unlikely in the near future.  But smart businesses “get it.” Testimony and discussion at [a] State of Minnesota Ergonomics Task Force revealed remarkable recognition and agreement about the need to do something regarding work related musculoskeletal disorders (WRMSD).  And ergonomics plays a key role.

Stand up and be counted.

Philip Jacobs, CPE, CSP, is the President of Jacobs Consulting, Ltd., Saint Paul, Minnesota. He can be reached at jaco0253@umn.edu.



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