The goal of an ergonomics program is to improve the work environment by removing barriers to productivity, quality, and safety. This is accomplished through better matching of job requirements to worker capabilities. Because every job is somewhat unique, Ergonomists spend a lot of time performing assessments to better understand specific job requirements.
An ergonomic assessment is simply a study of task demands which help you identify workplace challenges and potential improvements. There are many different types of assessments, from short walk-throughs to complex measurement systems that can quantify the effects of specific body motions. The key to getting what you need from an ergonomic assessment is selecting the right kind of assessment.
An assessment should provide enough information to resolve your problem statement. If you already know where your problem jobs are, an assessment that identifies ergonomic problems is a waste; what you need are recommendations for cost-effective solutions. However, if you haven’t yet identified your problem jobs, you will benefit more from a high-level review that prioritizes issues than from in-depth assessments of what may turn out to be low risk jobs.
A short description of the pros and cons of three types of assessments may assist you in getting what you need from an ergonomic assessment.
An opinion-based assessment is one in which an ergonomics expert visits your facility and identifies potential issues and improvements. Experts will often look to your OSHA 300 log or question employees about job-related discomfort to guide them toward known problems. This approach does not include checklists or analysis, and the resulting report is often in narrative form.
Expert opinion assessments are excellent tools to use in your initial ergonomic improvement efforts. Because analysis is minimal, these types of assessments can be very economical. Often, the expert will be able to identify a number of “quick fixes” to clearly identified ergonomic issues. Expert opinions bring focus to important issues and can be the catalyst for positive change.
Opinion-based assessments are significantly limited in that they are only as good as the expert. If your ergonomics expert does not have experience solving problems in your industry, the result can be identification of problems but few suggestions on what you can do to improve jobs (“looking at your watch and telling you the time”). With no consistent methodology guiding the expert, you can end up with differing opinions on which problem jobs are most important, and even what the problems are.
These types of assessments are also limited in that there is no data to support prioritization of issues or justification for improvements. All too often, companies will implement only the free or most inexpensive improvements. Your ergonomics program can quickly stall when there is no data to drive the ergonomics improvement process.
Simple Evaluation Tools
Simple evaluations range from checklist risk assessment methods to analysis techniques such as the NIOSH lifting equation. These types of assessments are based on repeatable methodologies
This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2002-08-01.