Beyond Debate: Award-Winning Ergonomics Programs

Article excerpt

Companies on both sides of the Atlantic are coming up with innovative ergonomic solutions. What do these programs have in common, and what light do they shed on the debate over OSHA's new standard?

If you were a Martian listening to the ergonomics debate tearing through U.S. business and political worlds, you could be forgiven for believing that Americans invented musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). You might also be surprised to discover that other countries have been regulating ergonomics for years.

As a result, many companies in Europe have been tackling ergonomic problems for a long time. To publicize the most successful programs, the European Union awarded prizes to 13 businesses scattered throughout the member states last year.

In the United States as well, long before OSHA got serious about an ergonomics rule, companies began to address ergonomic issues for safety and productivity reasons.

As more American businesses prepare to comply with -- or litigate -- OSHA's new ergonomic standard, it makes sense to look at the experience of a few companies with award-winning ergonomic programs on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

Common Elements of Success

In November, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EASHW) recognized good practices in MSD prevention as part of the European Week for Safety and Health at Work.

Two of the winners, Denmark's meatpacking giant Danish Crown and Belgian-based Borealis Polymers, a specialty chemical company with 730 employees, came up with solutions to ergonomic problems that may be of particular interest to American companies.

In the United States, the Voluntary Protection Programs Participants' Association (VPPPA) recognized the outstanding work in this area done by the Pliant Corp., based in Schaumburg, Ill. The company, then known as Huntsman Packaging Corp., won VPPPA's Innovation Award.

The ergonomic programs of Pliant, Danish Crown and Borealis have a number of common features:

* The companies' interest in ergonomics began with a comprehensive assessment of occupational hazards and other employee concerns;

* Employees participated deeply in every step of the process;

* Success often came only after initial failure and required years of effort;

* There was strong upper-management support;

* Benefits were real, but often difficult to quantify; and

* The companies developed inventions that proved effective and are for sale (see "Do You Want One for Your Company?" on page 38).

In the case of Borealis, the payoff was almost immediate. "Our investment in ergonomics was paid back in a year," said Koen Servaes, engineer in the material handling department and one of the designers of a prize-winning forklift truck.

Big, Yellow Banana

Four years ago, Borealis participated in a university study evaluating the mental and physical aspects of working conditions in the company's material handling department. The company produces high-density polyethylene, polypropylene and other plastic products.

The material handling department at the company's Beringen plant has a number of responsibilities that raise ergonomic issues:

* Packing products into 50-pound bags and stacking the products in the warehouse;

* Loading and unloading trucks with raw materials and finished products; and

* Distributing raw materials to various production units.

By far the biggest physical complaint in the material handling department had to do with driving forklift trucks. When fully loaded, these trucks generally have to be driven backward because the pile of pallets blocks the driver's forward view, It takes little imagination to conceive of the back and neck ailments that result from spending a good part of the day twisting around, looking over your shoulder.

The law in Belgium requires an ergonomic hazard analysis for all new equipment and installations, but because the trucks had been in use for years, the company was not required to address these concerns. …