How Compatible Are Participatory Ergonomics Programs with Occupational Health and Safety Management Systems?

By Yazdani, Amin; Neumann, W. Patrick et al. | Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health, March 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

How Compatible Are Participatory Ergonomics Programs with Occupational Health and Safety Management Systems?


Yazdani, Amin, Neumann, W. Patrick, Imbeau, Daniel, Bigelow, Philip, Pagell, Mark, Theberge, Nancy, Hilbrecht, Margo, Wells, Richard, Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health


Employers have a duty to anticipate, assess, and control a wide range of hazards in order to protect the health and safety of their workers. Many organizations have a business framework that they use to structure their prevention activities. If formalized, it could be considered an occupational health and safety management system (OHSMS). Musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) are a major cause of pain, disability, and costs to workers, employers, and society. It might be expected that MSD prevention activities would draw on methods and approaches like the OHSMS. A forthcoming scoping review (Yazdani et al. Prevention of musculoskeletal disorders within management systems: A scoping review of practices, approaches, and techniques. Submitted to J Appl Ergonomics), however, found there was little information on how MSD prevention activities might be implemented within an OHSMS. Instead, MSD prevention was often described in terms of implementing a stand-alone ergonomics program, often a participatory ergonomics (PE) program. We wondered what challenges and barriers might exist when integrating MSD prevention into an OHSMS.

There is evidence of the effectiveness of both approaches. Robson and colleagues (1) conducted a systematic review of the effectiveness of mandatory and voluntary OHSMS interventions. They found that OHSMS interventions, in general, were effective in managing health and safety related issues. With respect to the effectiveness of PE programs, the systematic review of Rivilis and colleagues (2) concluded there was partial-to-moderate evidence that PE interventions have a positive impact on musculoskeletal symptoms, reducing injuries and workers' compensation claims, and a reduction in lost days from work or sickness absence.

As part of a larger project on MSD prevention within management systems, we (Yazdani et al. Prevention of musculoskeletal disorders within management systems: A scoping review of practices, approaches, and techniques. Submitted to J Appl Ergonomics) found little information on how MSD prevention might fit into an OHSMS. Given this absence of information, the goal of this paper is to assess the compatibility of elements described in well-cited PE program literature - representing common practice in PE - with the requirements of an OHSMS. Specifically, this paper addresses the question: What are the similarities and differences between an OHSMS framework and PE?

Occupational health and safety management system

An OHSMS is a formalized framework for organizations to manage the health and safety of workers (3). A variety of OHSMS frameworks and guidelines have been developed [eg, the Occupational Health and Safety Assessment Series (OHSAS 18001) (4), British Standard (BS) 8800 (5), and International Labor Organization guidelines (6)]. OHSAS 18001 was developed in response to demands from organizations to assess their management systems against a recognizable OHSMS standard (4). Some countries, like Canada, have developed management system standards for occupational health and safety (OHS) that closely parallel the frameworks described above (8). In Europe, the "OSH Framework Directive" (7) was developed to introduce measures to encourage improvements in the safety and health of workers at work. The Directive contains basic obligations for employers and workers to ensure the health and safety of workers. The directive includes general principles of prevention such as evaluating risks, adapting the work to the individual, adapting to technical progress, developing a coherent overall prevention policy, and prioritizing collective protective measures (7). This framework has been implemented in some European countries such as Sweden.

The main characteristics of proactive OHS management systems that distinguish them from traditional OHS programs are their ability to be integrated into an organization's other systems, such as quality management, and the incorporation continuous improvement elements (1). …

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