5 Requirements for Sustainable Ergonomics in the Workplace

This way to sustainable ergonomics

Sustainable sounds like one of those corporate buzzwords that come and go, but the meaning behind it will always ring true for organizations purposely built to survive, improve and thrive into the future. Ergonomics plays a key role in corporate sustainability, and this article provides an overview for a sustainable workplace ergonomics process.

Eighty-five percent of the reasons for failure are deficiencies in the systems and process rather than the employee. The role of management is to change the process rather than badgering individuals to do better.1 
W. Edwards Deming, corporate sustainability pioneer

The 5 Requirements for Sustainable Ergonomics in the Workplace

  1. Purpose and Goals
  2. Training
  3. Metrics and Continuous Improvement
  4. Documentation and Proof
  5. Teamwork and Accountability

Sustainable Ergonomics

Workplace Ergonomics Purpose, Goals & Strategy

There are many reasons to establish or revitalize an ergonomics process. One common purpose is to address ergonomics-related injuries, but good ergonomics brings many more economic and intangible benefits, and some of those benefits will expand the influence, value and success of ergonomics and continuous improvement throughout your company. 
 
Ergoweb promotes and works to achieve at least the following benefits in a workplace ergonomics process. We might add or subtract from this list, depending on the maturity of your current process.
  • Prevent injuries, fatigue and discomfort
  • Reduce the severity of injuries, disabilities, and all associated costs
  • Improve production quality and workmanship
  • Improve efficiency and productivity
  • Improve moral, accountability, teamwork and cross-functional cooperation
  • Improve absenteeism and turnover rates

Sustainable Ergonomics SMART-AStrategy is the method and means you apply to meet your production goals. It's important to set realistic goals, then set your strategy in motion with specific timelines and metrics aligned to achieve success. SMART-A is an acronym that may help you as you devise your ergonomics process strategy.

Ergonomics can benefit other corporate functions, including product and service design, but this article focuses only on workplace ergonomics.

Ergonomic Metrics and Continuous Improvement

Metrics are a requirement in today's business environment, with good reason. Metrics, meaning the method in which we measure the state of our process, are key to understanding whether we're succeeding, failing, or having little or no effect at all with our strategies. 
 
Metrics are what transforms well-intentioned, heartfelt beliefs and expectations into documented reality for all to see. And as the saying goes, seeing is believing, and decision makers in particular need to see it to believe it. If they don't believe it, they won't put their neck on the line to support, participate and promote it, and neither would you or I.
 
On the other hand, metrics can be dangerous if they aren't an accurate measure of what they purport to be measuring, or if perceived as busy-work. For integrity, a measure, and the method in which we do the measuring, must to be consistent and repeatable. If it's too variable and easily disputable, our methods or measures won't be credible or accepted.
 
Fortunately, good ergonomics creates significant ROI across many production metrics, so it's just a matter of quantifying those metrics.
 
Leading vs. Trailing Ergonomics Metrics
 
A good system of metrics consists of both leading and lagging metrics. 
  • Lagging metrics measure outcomes that have already occurred
  • Leading metrics measure factors that predict outcomes before they occur
  • The more mature your process is, the more you identify and rely on leading metrics
Good ergonomics improves metrics across health and safety, quality, productivity and human resources. Therefore, to the extent they're useful in meeting your strategic goals, your ergonomics process might include leading and lagging metrics for each of these areas.
 
Example lagging metrics for the impact of ergonomics on health and safety:
  • reports of work-related fatigue and discomfort
  • first-aid treatment for work-related aches and pains
  • documented ergonomics-related injuries, rates and costs
  • ergonomics-related Workers' Comp data
  • costs associated with injured return-to-work
  • costs associated with ineffective (non-root-cause) fixes to problems

Example leading metrics for the impact of ergonomics on health and safety:

  • Quantified risk factors like forceful exertions, repetition, awkward posture, and duration of exposure

Example lagging quality metrics for the impact of ergonomics on process quality:

  • Error or reject rates for specific process-steps involving human interactions and inputs
  • Quality control errors involving visual inspection or other human interactions
  • Yield, the percentage of correctly manufactured product without scrap or rework

Example leading metric for the impact of ergonomics on process quality:

  • # of defects/quality problems identified and controlled during production (as opposed to after production)

Example metrics for the impact of ergonomics on process efficiency:

  • Throughput, or productivity over a given time period
  • Cycle times

Ergonomics in the Workplace: Training

No goal, regardless of how small can be achieved without adequate training.2 
Taiichi Ohno, corporate sustainability pioneer

Training is an important part of any process, especially so for ergonomics, because even though it seems like common sense, there's much more to it, and it's not as intuitive as it may seem at first glance. 
 
It's also common that an incomplete version of ergonomics has previously been promoted within a company.  For example, there's much work to do if ergonomics has been promoted as stretching routines, or as lifting technique training, or any variety of employee behavioral modification. There's a time and place to improve behavior within your ergonomics strategy, but the greatest value and best outcomes in ergonomics come from a focus on human-centered design and engineering, first and foremost. With good ergonomics design, safe and effective employee interactions become natural and intuitive. 
 
Who Needs Ergonomics Training? The short answer is that everyone in a company has some level of ergonomics ownership and responsibility, and therefore will benefit from training tailored to their needs and responsibilities. In a mature ergonomics process, everyone knows their roles and responsibilities. Some team members will need minimal introduction and exposure to the ergonomics process, while those responsible for carrying out the day-to-day ergonomics process will need deeper training. Part of the ergonomics process strategy should be a strategic, timed approach to training.
 
Below are fundamental components for ergonomics training:
  • The expected value, benefits and outcomes of a sustainable ergonomics process
  • An overview of the 5 Requirements
  • General ergonomics awareness training appropriate for their role in the company
  • Metrics and process fundamentals
  • A deep-dive focus on their particular roles and responsibilities in the process, particularly as they relate to identification, evaluation, tracking and implementing fixes and improvement opportunities.
  • Top Management: The business purpose, benefits and strategy of the ergonomics process, and the importance of their commitment and leadership toward those goals.
  • Mid-Management: General ergonomics awareness, their roles, rights and responsibilities to foster a continuous improvement environment, leadership towards the ergonomics process goals, how to track and evaluate improvements from a recognized set of consistent metrics, and encourage innovation and improvement processes to thrive.
  • Employees and supervisors: General ergonomics awareness, their roles, rights and responsibilities in the overall ergonomics process and the Plan-Do-Check-Act activities, and how to identify, evaluate, and improve the design of workstations, equipment and production processes on a daily basis. 

Teamwork and Accountability 

Ergonomics is no different than any other improvement management strategy. The process can only succeed if people understand and execute their respective roles and responsibilities. Without individual accountability and the ability to effectively cooperate, no improvement process is successful in the long term.

Conclusion

Ergonomics is an essential tool for organizations that are built to last. Maintaining an ergonomics process that encompasses the five requirements described above is an important ingredient in the recipe for sustainability

References

  1. W. Edwards Deming, http://www.azquotes.com/quote/873755
  2. Taiichi Ohno, http://www.azquotes.com/quote/1411460