Most Workplace Ergonomics Approaches Miss This Simple Truth

Are you aware that there is a simple factor missing from (or buried so deep as to have negligible impact) most workplace ergonomics approaches? Let’s set the stage with a quick look at what most industrial and office ergonomics improvement approaches entail.

computer on desk

An overview of ergonomics approaches

Workplace ergonomics approaches (including both industrial ergonomics and office ergonomics approaches) typically begin with considering how the job can be best fit to the worker. This includes such considerations as:

Job design

The overall design of the human work activity by assignment, including what work is being performed, for what purpose, what personnel are involved, and what means are used to perform the job.

Tools and equipment

The tools and equipment used to perform the job, and how they are set up, adjusted, and used. This also includes specifications about whether equipment is specified for a given task or if there are options that the end user can choose from.

Posture and movement

This category goes by various names, including “physical technique”, “body use and position,” and “movement skills and habits.” All of these refer to the idea that the worker has a level of options available to them related to how they position their body and move it to accomplish the work at hand. These options are limited by several factors including:

  • The worker’s physical size, condition, and capabilities (including any limitations they may have)
  • Skills and understanding of movement approaches and options for a given task
  • Environmental factors that affect posture and movement choices (for example, a chair that without height adjustability dictates possible seating positions, and handle cutouts on a bin may limit hand positions available for carrying) which also relates to other human factors in the perception of the task and options available the worker for the approach to a physical task.

Aids and assists

This includes devices and equipment that may make an existing task easier, such as straps to aid in lifting, or a powered lifting aid. Note that this is technically a subcategory of tools and equipment, but is particularly referring to aids and assists that can be brought to bear in an existing job or task, rather than being made part of the core job design

In practice

Those basic areas describe most of what is addressed or changed in workplace ergonomics. Picture an office setting, where there may be two basic components that are evident from this sort of intervention

  1. Setup is changed by means of altering chair, monitor, and keyboard equipment and position.
  2. Instruction is given to the worker regarding preferred body position at work and how to achieve it with adjustments to their setup.

What’s ignored…

So you have a reasonable and well-put together approach as is described above (which turns out to be fairly typical for office ergonomics interventions in particular) that is regularly deployed in workplaces all over, yet a very important concept is often glossed over if it is covered at all. The concept is this: Even a very well optimized body position does not work so well if the worker does not vary their position regularly.

Why is this an issue?

Static loading, where muscles must hold the body in a single position for a long period, is an established musculoskeletal injury risk factor. holding positions for extended periods without movement reduces circulation and contributes to stress on the muscles and connective tissues. The greater the exertion required to maintain a given static position the higher the stress on the body.

How to implement this idea

Consider how that understanding and conveying the benefits of varied body position can improve your ergonomic program results significantly. Move your discussions and instruction from the idea of one correct setup to a range of preferred setup options. Here’s a little exercise to convey the concept:

Midway through your ergonomics training session, after the basic setup concepts have been discussed, show your trainees an example of a traditionally good workstation setup, such as the one below.

One example of a "textbook" setup

One example of a “textbook” setup

Ask them how favorable it would be to use that position at work. (note how the question is worded in a bit of a vague way to encourage some engagement with the idea). You may get a range of answers, but if the consensus is “yes, ” then ask the clarifying question, “So would this be a good position to work in all day?…” At which point you can highlight that is a great starting position, but that even still needs to be varied to reduce stresses on the body.

At this point, you can highlight that they have a few options for varying positions, including:
Small variations in the same basic configuration (leaning forward or back a bit, bringing legs forward or back), which can be attained without re-adjusting anything in the workstation.
Small adjustments to the workstation, such as raising or lowering the chair slightly.
Switching basic positions, such as going from sitting to standing.
Brief deliberate “micro breaks” at the workstation, such as sitting back and performing a hand and arm stretch for just a few seconds every now and then.
Leaving the workstation for a time, either to perform a different task, or as a purposeful break of a certain duration.

What do you do to convey this concept?

What is Loss Control?

I had a surprising discussion the other day with the COO of a fairly large grocery company about risk, safety, and insurance issues. His company has sizable exposures in the areas of property, liability, and workers’ compensation, and he has policies with several insurance carriers totaling over 7 figures in premiums.

Misconceptions from bad to worse
What was surprising about the discussion was how well versed he was in the costs of his policies, and the claims and administration related to those claims, but what a limited idea he had about the concept and function of loss control related to his policies. What’s even worse about this situation is that a sizable portion of the commercial insurance community shares the same mistaken idea. What is the mistaken idea?

The idea in question
The mistaken idea in question was that “Loss Control” meant “Inspections.” And by inspections, it meant some sort of non-participatory process where an inspector would briefly visit a location, collect some information, make some observations and perhaps take some measurements, and then be gone. Some group of recommendations might appear a month or two later with a little bit of written explanation and not much more.

I asked the CEO if that’s what his idea of loss control was, and he paused and said that was pretty much it from his experience. His stores are nicely organized and maintained, and very well-run overall. He recieves very few recommendations overall.

Engagement determines impact
The issue here is that even though inspections are often an integral part of loss control, and certainly the most visible part for most smaller accounts, inspections are more of an oversight tool (making sure that the insured company isn’t doing anything that will put them at too great of a risk for losses beyond what their business type would indicate) than an improvement tool (helping attain better performance.) The challenge is engaging with business and property owners and operators to help them improve their performance and better their condition.

So what is it really?
If loss control (or risk control as it is also called)isn’t just inspections, what is it then? Here’s a start. Loss control requires two dimensions: The first dimension is the active engagement of insured entities to understand the hazards that they are exposed to, the controls currently in place, the loss experience they have had over time, and their approach to managing and guiding safety. The Second dimension is working together with those insured entities to improve their performance in a collaborative way. That second dimension is often absent.

The challenge
The biggest challenge toward that goal is that every organization is different and needs help in different ways. Some companies have well-developed safety management and only need targeted collaboration on certain key issues; others don’t have a clue of where to start and need more help than may be included with the service level set for their policies. Inspections will always be a part of the picture, and perhaps the most visible one in many cases, but loss control professionals and leaders need to remember and convey the bigger picture.

Vehicle Into Building Crashes: A Longstanding Issue Emerging in Recognition and Understanding

I have been working with several groups in the restaurant, retail, and hospitality industries on the issue of vehicle-into-building crashes, also sometimes referred to as “storefront crashes.” This is about the accidental contact (or near contact) with or intrusion into buildings by vehicles, accidental versus intentional in nature. These incidents sometimes damage property, sometimes cause injuries. The outcomes may be severe.

The scope and impact of this issue is huge, but still not as recognized as it should be. Incidents continue to occur, with severe consequences to people and property. No unified standard of care, or regulatory framework has yet emerged, but work is underway in that regard. Thankfully, more attention is being given to this issue all the time. Here are two new articles of note that highlight the issue:

Risk Management Magazine on storefront crashes.

And another recent story on, highlighting in particular how preventable many of these incidents are.

This issue it starting to receive some long overdue attention. Hopefully prevention approaches will soon become more widely understood and implemented.

Developing a “Safety Culture” vs developing a Positive or Focused or Meaningful Safety Culture…

At the recent National Safety Council annual Congress and Exposition in San Diego, the NSC’s central booth focused on their “Journey to Safety Excellence” initiative. It’s a nice way to summarize one model of a path that companies travel on their way to safety excellence. It looks like a great set of tools to help companies reduce incidents and exposures, improve compliance, and improve management skills as well.

One of the interesting features of their booth display was an in-person survey of the issues that people felt were the most pressing or challenging related to their own companies journey. The results were evident immediately and graphically via dropping a poker chip into a labeled large clear acrylic tube, so the the stacking of chips made an immediate “bar graph” display of results. the four choices were as follows:

Leadership and Employee Engagement

Safety Management Systems

Risk Reduction

Performance Measurement

Is it any surprise that “Leadership and Employee Engagement” was the leading category by a wide margin? People at many companies and organizations are seeking more engagement in safety and risk reduction. They are seeking increased engagement at all levels, and they know that engagement is necessary for any larger success in safety excellence to occur. This is a worthy topic, and there is one simple point I’d like to address today:

What does it mean to refer to “Safety Culture” development?

One of the informal definitions of culture that I want to revisit is the simple phrase “Culture is the way we do (and see) things around here.”

So what is we seek to develop? One recently popular notion that because all organizations have some sort of culture related to safety, including dysfunctional and counterproductive versions of safety culture, just saying that seeking to develop “safety culture” is not enough. The naysayers say that you already have a safety culture and that what you need to do is make it better. Sure, that’s technically true, but framing the situation that way is a needless technical hangup, that will end up confusing a lot of end users. So let it be known that in common use, referring to developing a safety culture means developing a safety culture that is better, more effective, and more advanced than what you are starting with.

Keep in mind the following characteristics of a great safety culture:

  • A great safety culture is effective at reducing risks and losses
  • A great safety culture is understood at all levels
  • A great safety culture is realistic and not theoretical
  • A great safety culture exists across all portions of an organization
  • A great safety culture is focused on meaningful action
  • A great safety culture includes understanding of how safety supports production goals
  • A great safety culture is not just for show

What means do you use to know where you are starting from and where you need to go? Do you do employee safety perception surveys? Do you have meetings that bring different levels together? Do you solicit input and ideas both formally and informally?

And most importantly, do you truly value that the input you get from your workforce? How do they know that?

Contaminate Food on Purpose? Never. Never! NEVER!!!

I had just posted my previous article on adulterated food, contaminated food, and other intentional tampering with food and beverage, when I got a call from one of my close friends in the restaurant industry. He’d seen my article and told me how opportune the timing was as he and his staff had just been discussing a current news story about the very same issue. It seems that the online review site Yelp is being sued to reveal the identity of a reviewer who left an extremely disparaging (and highly questionable in authenticity) review of a famous New York City steak house. The claim in the review is that waiters (including the reviewer himself) regularly spit in customers’ food. All indications are that this review is bogus, and investigation at this time is pointing toward the possibility of a disgruntled would-be employee who applied but never got a job of any kind at the establishment.

There should never be the slightest doubt that this was handled with care.

There should never be the slightest doubt that this was handled with care.

So this particular story is more about how anyone can post anything on a review site in an anonymous or concealed way, an potentially cause serious harm to an establishment’s reputation. That is a real issue that needs to be addressed, but I want to mention something that came up in some of the online discussion related to this story. Some commenters (of who knows what ages and backgrounds) made quite a few cavalier comments about tampering with food, in particular spitting in food. Here is one example:

<From an online commenter, who said they had been a food server> I had a particularly obnoxious table to deal with one very busy Friday night. At the end if the meal they started cracking all the jokes about tips and not eating yellow snow etc. I smugly replied” I have a tip for you too, never piss off your server until after you have eaten your meal!” They were all horrified “you wouldn’t they cried”, “you’ll never know” I replied! Priceless!

Now this particular story might be as made up as the one mentioned in the opening paragraph, and it only refers to the threat of tampering with food as opposed to any real instance, but it underscores just how important it is for restaurants to control this issue. Here are some bullet points (expanding on the previous article’s points) for restaurant managers and operators to consider when setting policies and training their staff:

  • Contaminating food on purpose is an immediately terminable offense
  • This refers Intentional contamination of food in any fashion or amount
  • Customer’s food must be treated with the highest respect and care; customers have put their trust in us and we will honor that trust
  • We will not joke about, insinuate, threaten, or imply that food might be contaminated even if it is intended to be in jest or just between employees
  • Intentional contamination of food, or knowingly serving or storing (for later service by others) contaminated food or ingredients is a terminable offense and may be a criminal or civil offense as well
  • Any reports of suspected or implied contamination will be dealt with seriously and investigated thoroughly
  • All staff in every position must acknowledge their commitment to serving wholesome and pure food

That’s a start! I am eager to hear from more of you in the restaurant business about how you ensure that this issue is taken very seriously in your restaurants!

Adulterated Food and Foreign Objects in Food: Protecting Restaurant Operations

When people think of food safety, they often think of food-borne illness, and rightly so considering the breadth and seriousness of food-borne pathogens. That being said, there are other food safety concerns that need attention as well. This article will focus on food adulteration, contamination, and foreign objects, which is the contamination of food with substances that are not fit or intended for consumption, or foreign objects or materials in food. This category has garnered significant attention lately as stories of cleaning chemicals ending up in food products have been in the news several times in just the last few months. Those reported recent cases centered on unintentional contamination, but there are reports on occasion of intentional contamination as well. That’s the point that I’d like to lead with.

Restaurant Operators: Do not Tolerate Intentional Tampering With Food!

Now it’s not that there are many operators out there that are OK with workers tampering with the customer’s food, it’s that many restaurant operators take it for granted that this is absolutely forbidden in any form or degree. In several cases of food tampering where I have followed up, a pattern emerged: The operator assumes that everyone that works for them know that this is wrong, but it is not highlighted or underscored in a meaningful way. This needs to be taken a step further to the level of specific policy that is clearly communicated and reinforced. Several of the points that may be included could include:

  • It is absolutely forbidden to add anything to food that does not belong in it, in any quantity or fashion
  • In any form it takes, deliberate contamination of food is subject to immediate termination
  • Anyone tampering with food intentionally may be subject to criminal prosecution
  • Anyone witnessing tampering with food must report it immediately
  • Knowingly serving food that has been tampered will be treated the same as tampering with it yourself
  • Joking about or threatening to tamper or adulterate food is prohibited

What else do you think should be included?