Workspaces are changing quickly as yesterday’s cube farms become today’s open concepts. It’s important to evolve and keep current, but to also ensure that technology and aesthetics still provide function and reflect basic ergonomic principles.
In fact, ergonomics can optimize both human performance and the use of technology for improved efficiencies and reduced costs. That is, costs associated with injuries, lost time, insurance claims and generally wasteful work layouts and methods.
When designing a workplace, it’s important to consider all aspects of ergonomics, productivity and accessibility. Don’t miss a step; remember the A, E, I, O, U’s:
It’s ill-advised to jump into the new without understanding what is functioning or broken of the old. Perform a basic ergonomic hazard assessment to quickly ascertain what element(s) of a job are causing productivity, quality or comfort issues.
Ergonomic issues are often a byproduct of poor layout, wasteful processes, improper or inappropriate equipment and bad worker habits. Progressing into any design without understanding these basic elements can be costly and often breeds non-confidence and frustration among staff.
Assessment tools can take various forms, including checklists and reviews of past workplace inspection documents. However, bear in mind that a comprehensive ergonomic assessment captures multiple elements of information concisely and cost-effectively to highlight the design flaws in any current workspace.
After completing the assessment, determine which of the identified hazards are problematic and diminish the human ability to perform effectively. Anthropometrics, a study of measurements and proportions of the human body, should be a first line of defense when looking at design.
When used effectively, anthropometrics can reduce or completely engineer many hazards out of work space designs, layouts and equipment use. It’s the only way to ensure that the design will fit the workforce, the space and the task.
Anthropometrics can also allow an organization to design for demographics without guessing. For example: In a multicultural city, using solely standard North American anthropometric data may result in furnishings, equipment and tools that are at higher or lower-than-ideal working heights, thus increasing the number of injuries and claims.
Consult other standards and guidelines to fine-tune work methods and work expectations. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO), Canadian Standards Association (CSA), Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) and American National Standards Institute (ANSI) guide organizations on how to better configure their programs, processes and overall design for improved safety and quality.
Look at what other companies are doing to mitigate their design concerns. It’s possible to avoid many unforeseen pitfalls by networking and collaborating with organizations and professionals that have gone through similar processes.
The PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) management method has been proven effective through various work models. However, this process can be costly at the design stage as the “Check” phase can extend timelines and delay progress.
Consult with safety associations such as the Canadian Society of Safety Engineering to learn how hazards have been controlled and whether the controls were effective or raised other concerns. It’s important to thoroughly investigate when ideas are still on paper and thus relatively easy to modify, which can save time and money and prevent potential injuries from occurring.
Advances in technology can help reduce some of the frustrating disconnects that arise when addressing the limits of the human body. Employees can only work so fast, lift so much and adjust their posture within a specific range of motion; outside of that, programs, equipment and furnishings can bridge the gap. For example, the use of electric or pneumatic lift tables, carts and manual handling devices allows 100 per cent of employees to complete tasks comfortably, at their precise ergonomic working height, without compromising safety and comfort.
It is possible to combat aging, fatigue and injuries through effective optimization. Look at not only the physical environment but also the processes, tasks and procedures workers will be expected to perform. Networks, cloud-based technology and mobile systems enable employees to work anywhere. Injured employees can start the return to work process sooner by incorporating Skype or Any Meeting-type systems to attend meetings and collaborate on projects from home.
Proactively assess hazards and inefficiencies to deploy controls that will improve ergonomic principles, work flows and productivity before the design negatively impacts staff. For example, a work flow that requires employees to repeatedly handle a product could be streamlined to a single touch point to reduce handling and create a leaner, more efficient use of a worker’s time. Search the market for products and furnishings, as well as “out-of-the box” modernization such as voice/text recognition programs, custom tooling, automation and work methods to make updates that have a positive design impact.
Reach out to those who can help. It’s prudent to use internal and external resources during the design phase, so as to avoid repeating errors and incurring unnecessary costs.
Involve key stakeholders, including employees, to understand issues that only an expert at the task would know to be able to provide effective solutions. This low-cost step has the additional benefit of promoting corporate buy-in and improved management-staff relations.
Experts such as engineers, ergonomists and/or architects can help guide the design process and provide an unbiased professional opinion, which can be crucial when attempting to “change” an environment or workspace.
By keeping this five-step process in mind during the design stage, it’s possible to avoid ergonomic errors that cost more to fix after the fact.
Alexandra Stinson is a Canadian Certified Professional Ergonomist (CCPE), Registered Kinesiologist (R.Kin.) and co-founder of PROergonomics. She has assisted in providing cost-effective ergonomic solutions to her clients for more than 15 years. She can be reached at email@example.com.