There are many reasons companies start ergonomics programs. It could be due to one serious injury, or it could be due to a series of minor injuries or staff absences in the workplace.
An ergonomics program is about identifying and minimizing or eliminating the risk factors for injury in the workplace. Ergonomic risk factors in the workplace include tasks that are highly repetitive, require forceful exertion, or require awkward postures to complete.
Every company is different, and so are the ergonomic risk factors for injury. In an office environment, risk factors for injuries to the wrist, forearm, and low back can include sitting at a computer all day. By contrast, consider the facilities management team that maintains building operating systems, completing tasks that require forceful exertions and awkward postures.
There are many benefits to ergonomics programs, including reducing injury and absenteeism, saving on workers’ compensation costs, improving job satisfaction, and creating an organizational culture of safety to ultimately improve staff performance.
Developing a successful ergonomics program involves five critical steps: collecting injury statistics, understanding work tasks and identifying risk factors for injury, and then implementing, communicating and evaluating the plan.
1. Collecting injury statistics
Step one is to examine the causes of employee injuries and determine whether there are any common injury trends, working with the Human Resources, Workplace Health and Safety, or Joint Occupational Health and Safety (JOHS) committee.
For example, do specific jobs or tasks that have a higher injury rate compared to others? If so, these are the areas to target for risk reduction with the ergonomics program.
2. Understanding work tasks, risks for injury
Step two is to talk to the staff who work in the focus areas identified in step one to better understand the work tasks and how employees may be getting injured. These interviews should also involve the JOHS committee.
Next consider how the risk factors that have been identified can either be eliminated or reduced. (Some risk factors can never be completely eliminated.)
There are three ways to reduce or eliminate ergonomic risk factors.
Engineering changes are the most effective at eliminating ergonomic risk factors and can include automating manual processes, redesigning work areas, using carts rather than carrying items, and purchasing height-adjustable chairs and work surfaces. Each of these engineering controls physically change how the tasks are completed.
Administrative changes focus on policies and procedures in the workplace. This can include limiting the amount of weight that people can lift at a time, establishing standards for how to store items, and changing staffing levels for certain jobs or shifts. Another example of an administrative control is to create a purchasing policy recommending certain types of products. This will not only reduce costs, but also ensure that all employees who sit at a computer all day have office equipment such as height-adjustable chairs, keyboard trays, and even height-adjustable desks that minimize the ergonomic risk factors associated with that work.
Changes relating to personal protective equipment are designed to help ensure that employees have task-appropriate safety equipment, such as safety googles and gloves.
Ergonomics programs can include just one type of control — engineering, administrative or personal protective — or all three, depending on the tasks and the risk factors for injury. The most successful programs eliminate the risk factors for injury by either automating manual tasks, redesigning work areas, or changing how the work is completed. The most important part of step three is to identify what types of risk factors are being eliminated and how the ergonomics program will be evaluated.
Step four is to communicate the ergonomics plan across the organization. This generally involves ensuring everyone knows about the program and why the changes are occurring, so they can participate fully, as well as training staff in any new tasks, policies, and procedures.
Getting management and the executive team to endorse, support, and lead the plan is important. Leaders that have a strong commitment to health and safety will improve the organizational culture and will encourage employees to commit to making changes and support the ergonomics program.
While these strategies typically remain internal, some companies externally communicate their ergonomics program to demonstrate their commitment to their employees and promote their organization as a safe place to work.
Step five involves the continuous monitoring of metrics agreed upon during the development of the ergonomics program. It’s also important to analyze the work area to confirm that the ergonomic risk factors have been eliminated or reduced and that the intervention has not introduced new risk factors.
If the ergonomics program has not reduced the risk factors for injury, are there opportunities for other workplace changes? If so, the review the entire program and again involve staff working in the area in looking at what further modifications can be made.
An unsuccessful program can waste resources, increase employee injuries, cause staff to disengage from the process and even increase staff turnover. Program evaluation helps to not only ensure success of the program, but to also ensure its sustainability in making continuous improvements to reduce injury in the workplace.
In addition to reducing workplace injuries and absenteeism, ergonomics programs improve employee engagement, job satisfaction, and reduce turnover. Successful ergonomics programs involve frontline staff during every step of the process, from understanding the tasks involved and identifying the risk factors for injury, right through to evaluating the program and looking at how the program can be sustained and spread throughout the organization. The five steps to a successful ergonomics program must be followed in order, with a focus on eliminating or reducing the risk factors for injury, in order to demonstrate how the plan has improved the workplace. Key markers of success include injury reduction, cost savings, employee satisfaction, and improved organizational performance.
Aaron Miller is a Canadian Certified Professional Ergonomist (CCPE) and an ergonomic consultant based in Kelowna, B.C. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety. (2018). Ergonomics. Retrieved from https://www.ccohs.ca/topics/programs/programs/ergonomics/