From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

Commentary: Who’s Responsible for Occupational Ergonomics?

[This article was contributed by Don Triggs, MS, CPE. Don is a Senior Consultant with Aon Ergonomic Services.]

It’s everyone’s responsibility.

As an engineer and a consultant, I’ve had the opportunity to interact with a variety of organizations and have observed some interesting mindsets with respect to implementing and managing occupational ergonomics.

First, most businesses feel that ergonomics is a safety function because of its relationship to injuries. Therefore, ergonomic implementation is typically the responsibility of the individual who manages the safety function, even though that person likely has many other responsibilities. Ergonomists understand that this approach is not very effective because ergonomics is a discipline that should permeate into every function of an organization. An excellent quote that embodies this concept is the definition of ergonomics by Rohmert:

Ergonomics is related to the analysis of problems of people in their various working conditions within their real-life situations. Ergonomists try to analyze these relations, conditions and real-life situations with the aim of harmonizing demands and capacities, pretensions and actualities, longings and constraints. – Rohmert, 1987

Another common belief is that all engineers possess a ‘crystal ball’ through which they can foresee the future and therefore design accordingly with respect to ergonomics. In truth, engineers reach decisions much like the rest of the population – by drawing on past experience, subject knowledge, and the focus of the problem at hand.

For example, if an engineer isn’t aware of the outcomes of a design with respect to ergonomics, positive or negative, then how will he or she learn from the experience? If engineers haven’t been formally trained in ergonomics, then how can we expect them to incorporate ergonomics into their designs?

Many universities offer ergonomics and human factors classes as an elective, not as a requirement for an engineering degree. I frequently argue that the emphasis towards ergonomics should belong in the engineering department instead of the traditional location of safety, because of the problem solving behavior that is inherent in engineering.

All too often I’ve experienced the troubling misconception among supervisors and middle management that ergonomics and safety is not their responsibility. This idea manifests itself because supervisors are usually only held accountable for production and quality. Because of this focus on production and quality, I have observed discrepancies on the enforcement of safety issues versus ergonomic risk factors. Recently, I had a supervisor tell me that he couldn’t make the individual use a hoist that was provided. I answered “Why not? You make him wear safety glasses, don’t you?” When he responded, “Yes, but safety glasses are required,” I fired back “What’s the difference?” If safety glasses are required in a production area, usually the supervisor will enforce their use. However, the use of a mechanical assist such as a hoist is often left up to the discretion of the individual. A reduction in rate is the most common complaint with using a mechanical assist, even though the rate was established with use of the hoist.

The goal of implementing either eye protection or a mechanical assist is to prevent an identified risk. The potential risk for not wearing eye protection is an immediate trauma to the eye. The potential risk for not using a mechanical assist is cumulative trauma to the back. We tend to understand the risks associated with immediate trauma, hence the regulations that mandate machine guarding, lock out / tag out, personal protection equipment and many more. However, cumulative trauma risks are often overlooked or underestimated. I believe these inconsistencies in the enforcement of safety standards have contributed to the steady increase of cumulative trauma injuries versus the decline in immediate trauma injuries.

The frontline workers also have a responsibility towards ergonomics. An interesting psychological reaction that I’ve encountered, in relation to ergonomics, is a consistent resistance to change. Humans are creatures of habit and therefore will resist change regardless of the improvement. This phenomenon has forced many of my colleagues to invoke the “21-day rule” in order for workers to break old habits and begin to see the benefits of an improved process. I negotiate with employees using a new tool, mechanical assist or technique to give it a try for 3 weeks. After three weeks we will discuss and resolve any issues associated with the new process. Usually, changes are minor, and what typically happens is the employees become adept at the new process and realize the improvement. I often wonder about all the potential ergonomic improvements that have been attempted and removed due to worker intolerance to change. I see these attempts as I walk through facilities: a dust covered manipulator; an unused pallet lift residing in the “bone yard” — a storage place where failed projects reside because an accountant somewhere says that the object still has value and shouldn’t be disposed of. It also saddens me to see ergonomic projects in bone yards because ergonomics is now seen as an expensive and risky endeavor by decision-makers in that organization.

Ultimately, the responsibility for ergonomics as well as safety resides with upper management. An organization will follow the directives of its leaders. If ergonomics is a priority at the highest level then it will permeate throughout all the levels of an organization.

Many consultants, myself included, have advocated the importance of implementing an ergonomics program. However, the most progressive organizations that I’ve worked with have not implemented ergonomic programs, but have instead accomplished success by integrating ergonomics into their existing processes (i.e., production, engineering, maintenance, quality, purchasing, human resources and R&D). These companies realized that ergonomics is not the responsibility of one person or department, but the duty of everyone in the organization.