I read an article titled “Corporate Ergonomics: It’s Musculoskeletal Disorder Management and System Optimization,” by Nancy L.J. Larson, the corporate ergonomist for 3M, and found it to be particularly interesting, because it ties in with themes we regularly write about, including the broader benefits ergonomics can bring to corporations, and how practitioners can promote and capture those benefits on behalf of their employers, clients, and therefore society. I’ve summarized some of the key points and concepts she shares, but interested readers are encouraged to read her complete article, referenced below, for details.
Ergonomics Then and Now
- Since World War II ergonomics (or human factors) has been applied as a way to reduce human error and increase human performance;
- Ergonomics programs began to appear in US-based corporations in the late 1970’s, and those earlier programs were “more closely associated with ‘hard’-dollar productivity and operating efficiency;”
- Later, ergonomics programs became more focused on work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs);
- Consequently, corporations frequently measure ergonomics success as reductions in injury rates or avoidance of workers’ compensation costs, but those measures are often difficult to tie directly to economic profit;
- Corporations often consider these types of costs as “soft” dollars, meaning their value is more in cost avoidance rather than increased profits;
- In contrast, things like productivity, quality, efficiency and waste reduction can be measured directly, and are therefore recognized as “hard” dollars that contribute directly to profits;
- On the positive side, ergonomics has gained greater recognition and understanding over this time period;
- Unfortunately, the WMSD focus may have detracted corporations from recognizing the historical ergonomics benefits measurable in productivity, efficiency and quality;
- Consequently, corporate understanding of the benefits of ergonomics has shifted from improved system performance to cost avoidance — something that must be managed and controlled;
- Though there are surely other reasons as well, the WMSD focus has led to an underutilization of ergonomics and professional ergonomists within industry.
Summarizing her introduction, Larson states:
Corporate managers want to provide a healthy and safe work environment and support ergonomics as part of health and safety initiatives, but often the broader advantages of a comprehensive ergonomics program are not understood.
She also notes that initiatives like Total Quality, Management, Six Sigma, and Lean, which tend to focus on hard dollar opportunities, are likely to receive more attention from management.
Ergonomics is Not Either/Or, but Both
Ergonomists know that this is not an either/or question. As Larson puts it,
Ergonomics value exists in both improving employee well-being and increasing operating efficiency.
She goes on to recognize the reality of corporate operations:
However, the greater business advantage is found in the optimization of human-system performance. The challenge is how do we, as ergonomists, facilitate managers’ awareness and understanding of ergonomics, especially as WMSDs are successfully addressed over time?
Larson then shares her observations, experiences and recommendations, which are based on ergonomics leadership experience and successes within several major international corporations, including American Express and 3M:
- Successful ergonomics programs align with and support a company’s business strategy;
- Successful programs can be located in any of a variety of organizational departments, including health and safety, facilities, engineering, quality, etc.;
- No matter what the home department may be, a program should be “rooted within the company culture” and should collaborate and develop partnerships with a variety of other business departments;
- Identify and partner with those who have reason to recognize and support ergonomics;
- Apply a macroergonomics strategy to create company wide standards, technical tools, expectations and goals that align with overall strategy, but also make the ergonomics process flexible so it can be molded to fit local regulations and market demands
She makes this important point for global companies:
The overarching goal is improvement of work: A job that is beyond human capability is a bad job anywhere in the world. If global companies adopted and consistently implemented basic ergonomics in their business operations, the well-being of millions of employees would be positively affected.
Case Study Examples
While leading the American Express Financial Advisors (now Ameriprise Financial) ergonomics strategy, Larson and colleagues applied a macroergonomics strategy to achieve what became recognized as a model ergonomics success. The ergonomics program was located in the Facilities Department, who had responsibility for furniture and office layout. She describes these specific features as ingredients for that success:
- Management leadership and corporate culture was focused on making Ameriprise “The Best Place to Work,” a concept well supported through ergonomics;
- When the customer service group was being reorganized, Larson and team applied a macroergonomics strategy to redesign roughly 1,000 workspaces;
- The team garnered support from stakeholders, including corporate and department management, IT, facilities, health and safety, and of course ergonomics;
- They researched and developed new furniture standards based on ergonomics;
- They tested furniture and individualized workspace design through an extensive employee participatory process.
The results were impressive. Productivity improved and WMSDs were reduced, and “The program was chosen by the U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO) as one of its Ergonomic Best Practices in 1996 and is still an excellent example of a comprehensive office ergonomics program.”
Larson also describes her experience as the leader of 3M’s ergonomics strategy, located in the Corporate Safety and Industrial Hygiene Department, where she and her colleagues oversee a program affecting more than 160 production facilities operating in over 30 countries. In summary,
- Each manufacturing location must implement four key program components:
- create a written program with identified annual goals and objectives;
- implement the company’s ergonomics risk reduction process;
- identify individuals with specific program responsibilities, including the role of technical ergonomics leader for the location; and
- conduct ergonomics training for all employees and advanced technical training for specific employees
- Historically, the program focus has been on reducing WMSD risk exposure;
- Recently, the focus has been expanding “to [include] the broader ergonomics benefits realized in productivity, quality, and efficiency benefits;
- Each location has an individual responsible for ergonomics, and that employee is provided with extensive training;
- The company utilizes an internal 3M Applied Ergonomics Innovation Award as a means to reward and publicize efforts that improve ergonomics measures for performance, health and safety, which also helps the company share successful practices internally;
- There are three award categories:
- solutions that cost less than $1,000;
- improvements to workplace layouts, tools, or work processes in existing jobs or equipment; and
- integration of ergonomics design criteria during the design of new equipment.
- Projects are judged on innovation, sustainability, cost benefit, and their applicability to local or company-wide use;
- The company now has over 700 such ergonomics improvements documented and internally shareable.
Larson summarizes several award projects, including ergonomics and production, ergonomics and sustainability, ergonomics and work process, and ergonomics and lean, and interested readers are encouraged to read her complete article for details.
In conclusion, Larson shares this wise vision:
Ergonomists must communicate how ergonomics adds value to business operations in the language of business. Businesses are similar to any other end user in any ergonomics project: The same strategy is needed to identify how we can make their operating systems work more efficiently while also maintaining health and safety benefits. To have sustainable results, the identification, measurement, and promotion of the broader costs and benefits of ergonomics must be fully recognized as supporting the company business strategy and business objectives. Then, ergonomics becomes part of the company culture and “how we do business.”
Well said, Nancy L. J. Larson, I whole-heartedly agree.
Nancy L. J. Larson, Corporate Ergonomics: It’s Musculoskeletal Disorder Management and System Optimization, Ergonomics in Design, 2012, 20:29, DOI: 10.1177/1064804612457674.
At the time of this writing, this article was available at: http://erg.sagepub.com/content/20/4/29.full.pdf+html
This review is reprinted with permission, with updates and modifications, from The Ergonomics Report™ Archives, where it originally appeared on November 13, 2012.