From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

Participatory Ergonomics: A Path to Sustainable Ergonomics

Peter Budnick, PhD, CPE

Yesterday I presented “Participatory Ergonomics: A Path to Sustainable Ergonomics” in a webinar sponsored by the Applied Ergonomics Conference. I’ve since received a good deal of positive feedback, so I’d like to share the basic content for those who were not in attendance, and add some additional thoughts for those who were.

I’ve always been aware, and for the most part, tried to practice the principles of a participatory approach to ergonomics, but it wasn’t until the last few years that the topic really began to formalize in my thinking. My involvement with the start-up of Ergonomists Without Borders (ErgonomistsWB) caused me to begin looking for examples of ergonomics “projects” that have taken place in Industrially Developing Countries (IDCs). For my own part, I had previously given presentations at international conferences, had conducted consulting projects with multi-national corporations in IDC facilities, and even served as an invited visiting professor in an IDC. However, these are not examples of participatory ergonomics as I’ve come to know it, but instead are examples of “push” ergonomics — more on what I mean by ‘push’ in a moment.

You might also be wondering why I put quotation marks around ‘projects’ in the paragraph above. To illustrate, I ask you to think of a respectful word to describe activities intended to introduce ergonomics to people in IDCs. ‘Projects’ is one word that easily comes to mind, but as one ErgonomistWB team member opined, even if the term ‘project’ describes the initiative in our minds, it is somewhat disrespectful to use the word ‘project’ when conducting the activities with the target audience.

How might you feel being referred to as a project?

I’m still not sure what the right word is, and ‘project’ still seems to be less offensive, especially when you consider other words historically used by ergonomists, such as “intervention,” but it remains a “push” word (again, more on that later). Perhaps what we’re really trying to express is an “initiative” — the beginning of a process? ‘Project’ seems to imply a start and a finish. But is there ever really a start and a finish to ergonomics, or is ergonomics better understood, described and applied as an ongoing process, hopefully one that exemplifies continuous improvement?

Before you start thinking I’m being too esoteric, let me share another example. I presented the launch of ErgonomistsWB at an international conference in Bali, which classifies as an IDC by international standards. The conference was attended by many people from Indonesia (Bali’s home country), as well as many ergonomists from other IDCs and industrially developed countries around the world. I made my presentation, including the introduction of a logo the ErgonomistsWB volunteer team had developed, and was quite taken aback by the reaction from some in the audience. Here’s the ErgonomistsWB logo:

What is it that some found distasteful? Well, after some discussion, it became evident that the concept of a person carrying/lifting the Earth, presumably a person from an industrial developed country, was somewhat presumptuous, if not offensive. Of course, the team that developed the logo hadn’t recognized this could or would be the case, but it apparently was. We could argue that others are too sensitive, but the fact was, some attendees found the logo condescending. To them it represented an external force (“push”), vs. a voluntary “pull”.

In my webinar, I used the concept of push-and-pull to frame the interactions that take place in organizations where ergonomists embark on a “journey” to develop participatory ergonomics processes, which I and others suggest are more effective and sustainable than top-down “push” approaches. If you are familiar with what has come to generally be known as “Lean” management methods, you already recognize that words like push, pull and journey are commonplace in organizations that are on an effective, so called Lean Journey. I also recognize that its never as simple as either a push or pull management process, but instead becomes a push-and-pull process in practice, and the art of knowing when to push and when to pull can become the difference between success and failure.

My research and experience with Lean and other effective organizational excellence initiatives is that they always demonstrate two primary philosophical pillars:

  1. Continuous Improvement
  2. Respect for People

I also suggest that ergonomists are uniquely able to lead and participate in cross-functional teaming efforts, a hallmark of organizational excellence initiatives like Lean. It’s difficult or impossible to gain voluntary participation without demonstrating and practicing respect with team members, and it’s difficult or impossible to achieve sustainable continuous improvement without voluntary participation.

So, I suggest:

Ergonomics is Respect for People, and Continuous Improvement is what ergonomists do.

The broad field of ergonomics produces a great deal of value, well beyond safety, health and wellness. Ergonomics is not an optional consideration in successful operational excellence initiatives, it is a requirement. And because of the multi-faceted systems nature inherent to ergonomics practice, ergonomists can play an extremely valuable role in fostering the participatory, cross-functional processes that lead to sustainable success.

Before I point you to the slides and recording of the webinar for more detail, allow me to bring this discussion back to the ErgonomistsWB example with which I started. If ErgonomistsWB, or any other ergonomics initiative — or any kind of organizational initiative for that matter — seeks to grow sustainable improvement processes, we must begin with respect for the people involved. That respect will foster participation; participation will foster continuous improvement; and effective improvement processes will lead to sustainability.

This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2013-01-09.