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?

Making a Difference for Safety: A Case Study

One of my clients recently mentioned that when safety and risk control is practiced in a more forward-thinking way, it can be hard for the uninitiated to understand what that sort of work looks like. There is enough entrenched perception out there of safety as all about rules and requirements, defined exclusively by OSHA, and embodied by inspections and poorly-produced safety training videos, that examples of a better approach are needed. With that in mind, here is a case study of one example of a real-world project for the improvement of the risk and safety picture in an organization. I will periodically offer additional case studies to shed additional light on how safety and risk approaches can be improved in practice.

A medium-sized light manufacturing operation (400 employees at three locations) with a full-time safety manager and three safety coordinators (one per site, with safety as a collateral responsibility along with human resources and training duties). The operation had a well-structured traditional safety program in place, and good participation on compliance-related matters overall. The major point of concern was an unfavorable trend of injuries related to lifting and manual material handling, with some high-cost claims and a significant number of lost time cases.

Because the company had a fairly complete and well-functioning safety program, a targeted accident prevention approach was selected, related to manual material handling issues. Injuries in the selected category included a large number of lower (lumbar) back issues, as well some neck and shoulder injures. A steering team was selected to do some analysis of the numbers, narratives, accident investigations, and ongoing work activities related to the issue. The steering team was charged with working on both the process-related and problem-solving aspects of the issue. In the course of the team’s analysis and information gathering, as well as through joint discussions with senior management, it was decided to implement a practical ergonomics approach to soft tissue injury prevention. This approach was set up to be led by the employee team, with a management liaison assigned to guide the team and be a connection to department heads and facility leadership.

Choosing an Approach for Musculoskeletal Injury Prevention
The team considered a number of systems for ergonomic approaches and musculoskeletal injury prevention. These approaches had different “headlines,” and were variously billed as:
– Back safety
– Back injury prevention
– Soft tissue injury prevention
– Musculoskeletal injury prevention
– Musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) prevention
– Lifting safety
– Manual material handling safety
– Industrial athletics
– Ergonomics, including the variants of “practical ergonomics,” “occupational biomechanics,” and “applied ergonomics”

Some of these names are applied by the providers of the various approaches with great care, and other names are

Types of Approaches Considered
The main types of approaches evaluated included:

– Traditional approaches that focused on classroom training, posters, videos and rules for workplace activity.

– Topic-based grouped packages of video, multimedia, and interactive material, that included material (mostly aimed at safe lifting and back injury prevention) focusing on task setup and lifting techniques.

– Onsite “school” approaches where trainers are brought in to lead the workforce through training experiences related to back injury prevention. Several of these approaches included rather extensive training with a large amount of material and in-depth in-class exercises. Several of the offerings also included a certification or certificate of completion component.

– “System” approaches where a set of techniques (often with proprietary names, slogans, and support materials) were accompanied by consultation with ergonomists or ergonomics specialists

– Ergonomic evaluation instruments that encapsulate a group of factors that impact ergonomic risk and provide for observation and scoring of work activities with numerical scoring

– Holistic approaches based on varied functional disciplines, ranging from martial arts, to yoga, to dance, to athletics.

– Engineering-centered approaches that place primary (or even exclusive) emphasis on facility, equipment, tools, materials, and job design factors.

– Post-incident topic-independent analysis, such as root cause analysis, fault tree, and cause train analysis

Exalted Methodology
One of the interesting results of this examination and selection process was the relatively common contention among solution providers that their particular methodology was distinctively superior to other approaches. After much examination of the relative differences in methodologies and the

A Hybrid Approach
One of the key takeaways we experienced from the solution selection process was that among varied methods, there were various aspects from several different ones that had particular merit given the situation the client group faced, but there were some approach elements from differing methods that were judged to be a better fit. The result of in-depth examination and analysis was a decision to combine elements of several of the approaches, in a customized fashion with consideration of the unique characteristics of the workplaces in question.

Structure and Sequence
Though the details of the approach for this client are worth exploring, those details will require a separate article. Instead, we’ll focus for the moment on the basic structure and implementation steps employed.

– First, claims, first aid, near-miss, accident investigation, and behavioral observation data was compiled and analyzed.

– Second, the existing safety climate and safety management structure was analyzed.

– Third, engineering factors and job design were evaluated.

– Fourth, a physical technique improvement approach was put into place, including baseline techniques, means to establish checkpoints and job aids, and field reinforcement and adjustments

– Fifth, a separate risk factor “quick check” was rolled out, using different underpinnings than the physical technique improvement above. The difference in model concept turned out to be a significant positive benefit to the this overall approach, giving engaged and motivated employees and their managers a chance to confront the idea that there are different ways to approach complex problems, and that deep improvement endeavors fare much better when they are not viewed as rote exercises.

– Sixth, a continuous improvement team was assembled with membership distinct from the steering committee, with the goal of keeping close tabs on how the process elements of the intervention work, and what extended and expanded elements were right to consider implementing

This particular intervention resulted in a very significant drop in associated claims in the affected categories, across all sites. Though the details of the intervention prevent any simplistic summary of how the process worked, one key thread was the coupling of a sense of ownership and participation from the workforce with concrete and sustained reduction of claims frequency and severity. Some of these details will be covered in future articles, but the main takeaway from this high-level view is that selecting a good strategy, getting the right people involved, providing regular guidance, and securing the active support of upper management provide a solid basis for serious safety improvements.