I came across this article written by the late Hal W. Hendrick, and was immediately impressed with his early recognition that the successful path forward for the field of ergonomics was to capture and promote the economics of ergonomics. Hal wrote this article in 1996, and it applies today as much as it did then. I’ve summarized the article below, including his numerous examples of substantial economic returns produced by applying ergonomics and ergonomic principles.
Hendrick began by noting that ergonomists have the potential to impact the quality of life “for virtually every person on this globe.” He suggests that many ergonomics professionals recognize that we have tremendous potential to improve health, safety and comfort for individuals, as well as improving both human and system performance. He concludes his opening with:
… I know of no profession where so small a group of professionals has such a tremendous potential for truly making a difference.
In light of our potential, why is it, then, that more organizations, with their strong need to obtain employee commitment, reduce expenses, and increase productivity, are not banging down our doors for help, or creating human factors/ergonomics positions far beyond our capacity to fill them?
He then asks why it is that so many in industry and in government see ergonomics as something that will increase costs and decrease competitiveness, and points to several possible reasons.
As Hendrick put it:
In my 35 years of experience in this field, I can think of no application of our technology by myself, close colleagues, or in collaboration with my students that did not have a positive benefit for the organization that more than justified the cost.
To prove his economic case, Hendrick shared a variety of examples where ergonomics had been proven beneficial, recognizing that these were some he had collected, but that there were many more examples in these and other industries. Below are a few he recounted (remember that his article was published over 17 years ago!), interested readers are directed to the full article, cited below, for details and additional examples.
South African Forestry Industry:
Aircraft Design in the USA:
Material Handling System Redesigns in Sweden:
Product Designs or Redesigns:
Replacement forklift truck design: Citing work by Alan Hedge (Cornell University), a team performed “inside-out” human-centered approach to complete redesigns of two forklift trucks produced by Raymond Corporation. The team set out to maximize operator comfort, minimize accident risk and improve productivity by designing the form of the truck around operator needs, including anthropometry, task requirements and comfort. One of the new designs was a finalist in a “new product of the year” competition sponsored by Modern Materials Handling magazine, and the company’s new product line helped stem Raymond’s declining market share and raise its stock price from roughly $6/share to $21/share by the time Hendrick documented this example in 1996.
Software and Training Improvements in the Telecom Industry:
Center High-Mounted Rear Stop Lamps (CHMLs) on Automobiles:
Hendrick identifies these as one of the most recognized ergonomics-related improvements, even if consumers don’t associate them with ergonomics. The use of CHMLs is now standard, but the research that led to them, and the move to make them standard began in the 1960’s and continued until the late 1980’s before becoming standard in the late 1990’s. Depending on your age, you may recall that car “tail lights,” as they’re commonly called, used to reside exclusively on the right and left rear corners of the vehicle, typically just above the “bumper.” By mounting them higher, making them more visible to following cars and therefore reducing rear-end accidents, Hendrick estimated the yearly USA cost avoidance in property damage alone to be $910 million. That figure is surely much higher when medical, health and wellness savings (and inflation) are included. Noting that the research and regulatory implementation together cost only $5 million, Hendrick wrote, “Not a bad ergonomics investment by the federal government!”
Food Service Stand Redesign:
A macroergonomics approach involving participatory ergonomics was utilized by Andy Imada and George Stawowy to redesign two food service stands at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, CA, USA. Before and after measurements demonstrated an 8 second reduction in average customer transaction time, which translated into a $1200 productivity improvement per stand, per game, “resulting in a payback period of 33 games, or 40% of a single baseball season,” as well as an improved customer experience. Once proven on the two stands and streamlined for further expansion, applying the same improvements to 20 other stands in the stadium had the potential to create a 20 game payback period per stand.
Reducing Work-Related Musculoskeletal Disorders (WMSDs):
Macroergonomics in Petroleum Distribution:
Andy Imada led a project that began with an “organizational assessment that generated a strategic plan for improving safety, equipment changes to improve working conditions and enhance safety, and three macroergonomic classes of action items.” A participatory approach that involved all levels of management, terminal and service station employees and truck drivers was used to initiate various process, equipment, tool and training improvements. Hendrick reports that “Two years after initial installation of the program, industrial injuries had been reduced by 54%, motor vehicle accidents by 51%, off-the-job injuries by 84%, and lost work days by 94%. By four years later, further reductions occurred for all but off-the-job injuries, which climbed back 15%.” The macroergonomic approach produced sustained results that continue to yield yearly measurable savings
Macroergonomics at LL Bean:
Applying a similar approach to that described above, LL Bean introduced improvements with a focus on total quality management. Hendrick reports “over a 70% reduction in lost time accidents and injuries was achieved within a two year period in both the production and distribution divisions of the company. Other benefits, such as greater employee satisfaction and improvements in additional quality measures also were achieved.”
It’s hard to believe that Hendrick wrote this article over 17 years ago, yet as a field, we sometimes still struggle to demonstrate the significant value of ergonomics to skeptical companies and consumers. As he pointed out, the skepticism some show is influenced by the misuse of the term ergonomics by advertisers and incompetent practitioners; by the perception that ergonomics is “common sense;” because we sometimes assume people will follow our advice simply because it’s the “right thing to do;” and because ergonomists don’t always do a good job documenting and promoting their value.
These are themes we discuss a lot here at Ergoweb, and we’ve cataloged many more successful solutions since Hal shared these. Ergonomics produces tremendous value, and we agree with what Hendrick said:
… I know of no profession where so small a group of professionals has such a tremendous potential for truly making a difference … for virtually every person on this globe.
We miss Hal Hendrick, but we’re very grateful for his long-lasting wisdom and legacy.
Hal Hendrick, (1996). The Ergonomics of Economics is the Economics of Ergonomics. Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting, 40:1. DOI: 10.1177/154193129604000101. http://pro.sagepub.com/content/40/1/1 (subscription required).
This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on January 13, 2013. It is reprinted here, with minor revisions, with permission.