An old saying states “politics is too important to be left to politicians.” The same sentiment could be applied to workplace ergonomics standards, guidelines, and regulations.
As professionals, we often look toward standards for guidance in designing or evaluating workplaces. Clients and employers call upon ergonomists to interpret and apply standards, or to insure compliance with regulations. But an important role to consider is in the development of these standards, guidelines, and regulations.
No individual can be a technical expert in all the areas related to ergonomics. Ergonomics, as a discipline, includes people with backgrounds in medicine, engineering, psychology, and many other fields. However, even a “general practitioner” of ergonomics has a valuable asset to bring to the table — practical experience in applying standards in the workplace. Participating in these processes can also be valuable and rewarding for professional development by exposing ergonomists to the process of standards development, and by introducing them to many of the leaders in the field, as well as to leading-edge thoughts and approaches.
Standards and guidelines are typically created by non-governmental, consensus organizations such as the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) or the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) in the United States. Ergonomics standards created by these groups may be sponsored by other organizations, like the National Safety Council and the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society.
These standards committees invariably allow public input, either by participation as a member of the committee, as a representative of an interested party, as an observer to committee meetings, or by public comment or testimony. Industry or trade associations may create other standards or guidelines. Participation in these committees may be restricted to members of the respective associations, which, for ergonomists working in fields covered by such standards or guidelines, may include a clients or employers.
Government regulations and legislation allow direct public input via opportunities to comment or testify at meetings or hearings, acceptance of written comments, and “stakeholder” meetings at various stages of development. The shape and scope of laws and administrative regulations may also be influenced, indirectly, through elected officials. Participation in local and regional initiatives may be easiest for the ergonomics professional, and may provide an opportunity for the greatest personal impact.
Barriers to participation typically revolve around time, money, and political tactics. As mentioned, some committees restrict their membership, and a few may skillfully choose members amenable to specific points of view. Membership on a national standards committee can also involve extensive travel expenses, and development may stretch out over several years. Those who are not sponsored by an employer, client, or professional association must absorb their own travel costs. Those who are sponsored may be obligated to represent the views of their sponsors, rather than their own.
Participation in these activities could be viewed as a professional obligation to the field; however, the benefits gained by those contributing cannot be overstated. Understanding the development of a standard is invaluable in applying it and understanding its limitations. Being exposed to the differing points of view, and even the political tactics involved, aids in professional growth. And reviewing the current approaches as they are discussed and debated, can be thought of as a form of continuing education.
But the most important reason to participate in the development of ergonomics standards, guidelines, and regulations, is the thought of who might be creating them, and how practical and effective the standards would be if working, professional ergonomists, were not involved.
Philip Jacobs, CPE, CSP, is the President of Jacobs Consulting, Ltd., Saint Paul, Minnesota. He can be reached at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2002-09-01.