When it comes to business strategies, nothing drives decisions better than the bottom line. Proper ergonomics can play a significant role in this equation as more companies of all sizes are eagerly discovering. To learn more about this growing trend, Ergoweb interviewed Nancy Larson, Manager, Corporate Ergonomics for 3M.
EW: Nancy, what is your education and area of expertise in ergonomics?
NL: I have a M.S. in Industrial Ergonomics from North Carolina State University. During my graduate work I was a NIOSH trainee. My undergraduate degree is in psychology (actually a good combination for ergonomics). My areas of expertise are in computer/office ergonomics, program development, training, and job analysis. I spent five years consulting and eight years in corporate (American Express Financial Advisors, American Express Corporate and 3M Corporate). I have my CPE [from the Board of Certification in Professional Ergonomics] and have been a member of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society for 16 years.
EW: At the 1997 OSHA/NIOSH Ergonomics Conference you presented a success story of yours from American Express Financial Advisors (AEFA). Why was that ergonomics program so cost-effective?
NL: The major reason the AEFA program was successful was that it was created through a joint effort. I was able to work cooperatively with the facilities group, telecommunications, management, ergonomics, and business division units. In addition to this collaboration, we had strong support from upper management. They recognized the importance of providing appropriate workstations, furniture, and accessories to set the stage for employees to work productively, effectively and without disruption to health or well being.
EW: How did you implement the program?
NL: AEFA was primarily a computer office environment (90%). They had a “churn-rate” of approximately 70-75% every year. This translated into over 3,000 employee workstation changes every year. We incorporated the ergonomics process into that move process. When employees were moving, they were required to attend a 1.5-hour personal ergonomics training class. The first hour was informational and included information about musculoskeletal disorders (MSD), computer work guidelines, and AEFA’s ergonomics process and resources. The last 30 minutes the employees created their personal workstation profile. They chose a specific chair, how their workstation would be configured, and the placement of their computer and other office equipment. They also identified specific ergonomic accessories they needed to perform their jobs well.
From this workstation profile, information was entered into a database and when the employees moved again, their profiles were accessed and used again and again and again.
Because of this “up-front design,” ergonomics did not cost extra money, it saved the company substantially as workstation layout and equipment placement happened as part of the installation process. Employees also expressed appreciation that the company paid attention to their needs and believed the company cared about each individual employee.
An additional success factor was our daily encouragement of employees to report any discomfort or illness. We didn’t care if the number of workers’ compensation or OSHA reports was high, we focused on solutions and addressing issues before employees had significant health problems.
EW: What were the results of this program?
NL: Initially, as is often the case, there was an increase in discomfort or formal workers’ compensation or OSHA cases reported. We encouraged this reporting, you could say we even “beat the bushes” to identify employees starting to develop MSD symptoms. Over time, the number of severe cases began to lower. Then the overall numbers started to drop. Over four years, the average workman’s compensation claim dropped from several thousand dollars to several hundred dollars per case.
EW: How are companies changing their view on ergonomics?
NL: There is more acknowledgement that ergonomics is a specialty area. They are now realizing it takes a skilled and dedicated expert to create and coordinate a successful program. Unfortunately not all companies understand the full value ergonomics can bring to their business. Addressing MSD is only one of the benefits of a successful ergonomics program.
EW: What are the other benefits of an ergonomics program?
NL: I’ve started stratifying efforts into three levels of ergonomics. The first level is reactionary and focused on MSDs. In this scenario an employee develops a MSD and the employer “fixes” the job for that employee. This strategy addresses a specific “known” problem and is very important. In some ways OSHA’s draft standard [now rescinded] operates at this level.
The second level is still focused on MSDs but is proactive as well as reactive. Proactive efforts include incorporating ergonomics guidelines into engineering, tools purchase, and furniture and workstation standards; providing employee training; and perhaps having an ergonomics professional on staff. This strategy moves toward “getting it right the first time.”
The third level associates ergonomics with the company’s bottom-line business strategy. Ergonomics supports the business and increases employee performance as well as addressing health issues. This is where ergonomics can provide companies a competitive advantage by identifying how human performance difficulties contribute to production bottlenecks, quality problems, injury and illness rates, and high turnover and then identifying how the design of work, tools, layout, and tasks can improve these business issues.
In a nutshell, ergonomics is about human performance and what tasks we ask employees to perform. We need to design work areas, tools and jobs that allow employees to function well. It’s about setting the stage for employees to work their best.
EW: What are some of the obstacles ergonomists face?
NL: I think the biggest obstacle is getting people to understand the breadth of ergonomics and the value we can add to business. When I started in the profession in the early 80s, there was a more balanced perspective of the field – a focus on designing for human performance. In the last 5 to 10 years, we have been increasingly promoted as a solution for musculoskeletal disorders.
EW: What can you tell us about 3M’s position in ergonomics?
NL: Our program is constantly maturing. Ergonomics is one element of our Global Safety and Health Plan and is identified as a technical specialty in our Environmental, Health, and Safety review of the staffing needs process. Every 3M location is to have an ergonomics program with specific goals tied to their business needs.
At the current time our corporate ergonomics efforts are focusing on four areas; engineering design, job analysis tools and training materials, computer/office ergonomics, and streamlining our communications.
Additionally, 3M identifies ergonomics as business through our office ergonomics, lighting and glare control products, and anti-fatigue matting products.
This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2002-04-01.