Organizing for Strategic Ergonomics

Article excerpt

The authors provide practical tips on integrating environmental, human, and organizational factors into the ergonomics process.

They're often billed as a quick fix for organizational cumulative trauma disorder (CTD) pains. Unfortunately, ergonomic interventions too often fizzle or detonate. But, armed with a strategic approach, you can harness ergonomics to strengthen your organization.

If you've ever experienced any of these common frustrations, you'll appreciate the need for strategic implementation of the ergonomics process:

* You know major retooling is needed, but your organization can't afford the direct expense or allow the downtime required.

Example: Because current manufacturing methods require workers to reach and rivet where physical access is difficult, one leading aerospace company is studying whether vibration-damping rivet guns, in conjunction with ergonomic training and exercises, can reduce the incidence of CTDs.

* You tried a design change, but employees bypassed or rejected it, evaporating your budget and hurting credibility.

Example: One worldwide soft drink company found its delivery personnel wouldn't use sophisticated stock handling apparatus designed into their trucks. Why? Because the new equipment slowed them down and reduced their incentive earnings.

* You felt overwhelmed with ergonomic choices and products, so you gave in to the miraculous claims of the latest article or vendor.

Example: The safety manager for the Pacific Basin operations of a leading express delivery service was besieged by employee requests for back support belts. But his analysis showed simply giving out a slew of back belts was not the answer for his company.

Your organization doesn't have to accept being stuck between the rock of unworkable ergonomic interventions and the hard place of spiraling CTD costs. A strategic and practical approach can reduce the incidence of CTDs and boost morale, employee involvement, communication, and safety culture -- all critical elements if ergonomic improvements are to take root and thrive in hard organizational ground. This article is designed to help you start a new system or upgrade existing efforts.

Timeliness

Certainly, the rush toward an ergonomics panacea is understandable in times of swirling change. The incidence of cumulative trauma injuries and illnesses is clearly on the rise in industrialized nations. In addition, employees have rising expectations that work shouldn't result in aches and pains. Mass media and organized labor are disseminating information about ways the workplace should be improved. And in the United States, many lawyers and doctors are actively soliciting clients who think they have been damaged by CTDs.

For many organizations, pressure from the government -- such as OSHA guidelines and The Americans With Disabilities Act -- motivates action.

In today's higher-paced, thinner-staffed organizations, managers are under pressure to simultaneously reduce losses and improve operations. Some managers pursue ergonomics hoping it will turn out to be the magic cure that delivers them from deep-seated problems of employee demotivation and breakdown. More proactive leaders see the systematic incorporation of ergonomic principles into their operations as an important part of continuous quality improvement.

When well understood and masterfully applied, ergonomics can: increase efficiency and performance; reduce fatigue; reduce negative work stress; keep skilled staff on the job; improve internal public relations; and reduce liability exposure.

More than Equipment Design

Ergonomics is commonly equated with redesigning tools, equipment, and workstations to eliminate causes of cumulative trauma problems (carpal tunnel syndrome, low back pain, etc). Unfortunately, a narrow focus on environmental design can lead managers and staff in search of the ergonomic Holy Grail -- the perfect chair or the tool with the ideal grip. …