A study published recently by researchers at the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries promises to simplify the hunt for ergonomics interventions for particular workplace issues. The 21st Century was a research aid for this project. As a predictive tool, the resulting model occupies an uncommon niche.
It was published in the May/June 2008 issue of the Journal of Safety Research (http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jsr.2007.12.006). Authors Richard W. Goggins, Peregrin Spielholz and Greg L. Nothstein state the purpose of the study in its title – “Estimating the effectiveness of ergonomics interventions through case studies: Implications for predictive cost-benefit analysis.” They note in their introduction that the results provide an opportunity to develop cost-benefit analysis (CBA) models for different work settings, such as healthcare, office or industrial. The results “also provide guidance in different situations for implementing a comprehensive program versus an individual control measure,” they write.
In July The Ergonomics Report™ explored the distinctive features and impact of the study with the principal author, Richard Goggins, M.S. CPE, a senior ergonomist with the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries’ Consultation Services group. He said the intention was to get more information out there to employers and practitioners who are trying to make cost justifications and don’t have their own numbers to plug into a model. “One of the things we hear from the business community is that they perceive ergonomics as a cost. That’s one of the main reasons they give for not doing more in the way of ergonomics. They all recognize that musculoskeletal disorders are common and very expensive injuries, and they’d like to do more about them, but they see ergonomics as being too costly and they are unsure of what direction to go in.”
The ergonomist added that if the study gets out the message that the intervention is more of an investment than a cost, then the time spent finding the right solution might seem more worthwhile to employers.
The researchers note in the paper that the study gives practitioners a new tool for cost-justifying specific interventions. Asked to expand on the specificity aspect, Goggins said the study gives a practitioner “the ability to make some assumptions that are based a little bit more on other people’s past experience with similar implementations.” He added that it allows a look at an individual case to answer, for example: “All right, we’d like to put in a scissor lift and raise the height of the work that’s being done, so what kind of percentage reduction in injuries and costs can we expect from that? And how might that impact productivity?”
Asked about the distinctive features of the study, Goggins pointed to its “predictive ability with the numbers.” There have been significant cost of injury data and models available and some cost benefit analysis models that can be used after the fact, he explained, and if you wanted to implement something, you could go back and test the cost effectiveness of it using those models. “Engineers are able to do time-motion studies and make some assumptions on increases in productivity, but in terms of some of the other numbers, like savings on injuries or decreases in turnover, there were not really a lot of numbers gathered together all at one time.”
The Labor and Industries researchers worked on a joint project with the Puget Sound Chapter of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (PSHFES) to develop a CBA tool based on the study results. The tool, along with supporting documents, is available as a free download from the PSHFES web site (http://www.pshfes.org/cba.htm).
21st Century Research Methods
The researchers remarked in the publication that the reporting of ergonomic benefits in peer-reviewed journals is limited. Their unusual way of circumventing this limitation defined the 21st Century character of the study.
The researchers set out to see what results could be found by casting a wider net, searching not just textbooks and peer reviewed journals, but also the rapidly growing set of case studies that are published on the Internet. They searched the Web using different combinations of the terms “ergonomics,” “solutions,” “interventions,” “cost,” “benefit,” “analysis” and “effectiveness.”
The search resulted in a collection of 250 case studies, including the 63 studies from a Washington state Department of Labor and Industries review. They represented a variety of industries and types of intervention. Eighty-seven described interventions in manufacturing industries, 40 were in an office environment, and 36 were in a healthcare setting, with the remainder in a variety of other industries. Just over 150 of the case studies reported the results of ergonomics programs. The rest were cost-benefit analyses of individual control measures.
Individual control measures were further broken out by the type of risk factor they addressed (e.g., lifting, awkward postures) and the way in which they eliminated or reduced exposure to risk factors (e.g., substituted mechanical equipment for manual lifting, reduced level of exposure by improving location of the lift or reducing weight of the object).
The researchers looked at injury-related effectiveness measures, productivity, turnover, absenteeism and the payback period. They used these as the main metrics for the study. The results were filtered and categorized. “The search revealed numerous case studies on the benefits of both ergonomics programs and individual control measures,” the researchers write, “including several collections of ‘success stories’ that were judged to be from reliable sources. They were included only if there was enough detail on the intervention to determine that it was likely to have resulted in the benefits that were attributed to it.”
“Once I really started looking, there were a lot more examples out there than I had thought, said Goggins. “Because in the past, before everything was on the Internet, we tended to see the same few examples published over and over again in news stories and within in the ergonomics community.” Once people had the ability to start putting their own examples up on a web site, he added, it really made things a lot easier to find.”
He observed that the old model of getting out your message was a full peer-reviewed study or publishing an article in a trade magazine. “Any more now, if consultants or a government organization wants to get information out about things like the benefits of implementing ergonomics they can just publish it on their own web site.” Just in terms of the number of studies that come up when you do a search for cost benefit and ergonomics, he added, it’s much broader than it used to be.
Impact and an Unexpected Application
Asked about the impact of the study since it was published in April, Goggins said several of the larger employers in Washington state are reported to be using the CBA model. “Typically, it is someone either from their safety committee or in their safety and health department who is using it to work with management to come up with some potential numbers for some of the things that they are thinking about doing.”
Using the model at a local school district produced an unexpected result. “They were having some injuries among their custodians from folding up cafeteria tables, which they have to do when they are cleaning. These are fairly heavy industrial strength cafeteria tables … requiring 80 pounds of force to lift them and fold them in half to move them out of the way.” He said he was able to use the model – along with their injury data – to cost-justify several different options.
He pitched upgrading to tables with a spring-assist mechanism to reduce the effort. Another option he offered was replacing the bigger tables with smaller ones that were much easier to fold up. “They actually ended up taking the numbers and using them to justify a completely different solution that I hadn’t expected. They retrofitted a battery-powered lift device so that it would fold up the existing tables for them rather than using the custodian’s muscle power.”
For them it made sense, he added. Even when the numbers justify it, you still have to budget and it takes a while to get a big capital purchase like that, particularly into a school’s budget. “Going out and buying that lift was quite a bit less expensive. They could keep their existing tables. It was something they could implement right away.”
The ergonomist anticipates that the numbers and report will help them when they are considering purchasing new cafeteria tables to replace old ones that are falling apart. At that point, he added, “they have some justification … for purchasing the more expensive ones.”
Goggins noted that retrofitting interventions can be more expensive, but that even apart from the ergonomics and durability aspects, “the higher quality adjustable furniture tends to be a good investment.” He pointed out that ergonomic features such as new counters at the correct height are not necessarily going to be more costly if they are designed into a construction project right from the beginning.
Benefits of the Data
The data, Goggins explained, “is not just related to the cost of injury. There are also good numbers on productivity. And we always talk about ergonomics raising morale. You can’t necessarily put a dollar value on morale, but we do see a lot of times a reduction in turnover as a result of that, and there are some good numbers you can put up on turnover.”
The research uncovered “some pretty impressive increases in productivity related to these interventions,” he said. “In the office environment, particularly, they focused more on productivity increases than they did on injuries because injuries are really not that common in offices. But if you can show a productivity improvement a lot of times that alone will pay for the cost of the solutions you put in place.”
He has found that productivity is the most winning argument for interventions, particularly for small or medium-sized employers who don’t have a big injury history. “For a lot of them a 5 percent increase in productivity is going to pay bigger dividends than 50- or 80 percent reduction on injury costs.”
The ergonomist was asked if interventions can be ranked for effectiveness and cost-benefit as a result of the study.
“In terms of getting a good payback and a good return on the investment, and in terms of being effective,” he replied, “I’m willing to let go of a little of return on investment if you prevent more injuries.” Even if you have to spend more up front, potentially lengthening the payback period, it still makes to sense to implement something that’s going to prevent more injuries. “In the long run, that will result in greater savings, not necessarily within that first year, but over a five-year period.”
He sees engineering controls as the most effective interventions over the long run, with the best payback. These are controls that “look at the hazard itself and try to engineer it out,” he explained. For instance, he said, a scissor lift or vacuum lift at the end of a conveyer line can remove much of the risk of injury. It’s important to note that successful interventions were not just pieces of equipment implemented in isolation, but in most cases were the end result of a systematic process that involved employee participation and training, Goggins added. “Measuring the success of the intervention was just the last step in a well thought out process.”
“I think that the case studies show that if you do ergonomics well, the results can be quite good, he said, ”and there is quite a bit of money to be saved out there by doing it.” This remark, combined with the observation in the study synopsis that “payback periods were almost all less than one year” begged the question of why people are still lifting.
“Some of that is the perceived cost of the aids,” the ergonomist replied. “Vacuum lifts are 10,000 dollars and more to purchase, and then you have to install it. So these things aren’t inexpensive. It’s the idea that you are not looking at them as a cost but as an investment that needs to get out there more.”
Source: Richard W. Goggins; Journal of Safety Research
This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2008-07-09.