People + Process = Performance

The Challenges Related To Ergonomic Assessments


Have you ever done an ergonomic assessment after an incident, implemented what you thought were the best solutions only to have the same problem occur again?  Or have you tried to be proactive and determine the risks from adding or modifying a new process or equipment only to have problems show up anyway?  If so, take heart, you’re not alone.   These are common outcomes that I have seen with many companies I have worked with.  There are common factors that cause the poor outcomes from the assessments.  In my experience, there are challenges related to the timing of the assessment and that of the assessment itself.  There are two types of assessments based on timing--those done after an incident has occurred (reactive) and those done before something has occurred (proactive).


Proactive Assessments

Proactive assessments are those that are done prior to anything happening, i.e. looking for potential risks or concerns before X (new equipment, schedule change, process change, etc.) are implemented.  There are certain challenges that make proactive assessments difficult.  The first is even considering doing a proactive assessment.  After all, why do something when nothing has happened or there is “nothing” to look at.  I call this being “blind” to the situation.  This is similar to “out of sight, out of mind” or “can’t see the forest for the trees”.  Some of the primary reasons people can’t “see” are:

·        “We’re In It Everyday”

·        Habits

·        Perceptions

·        No incentive to recognize things early and often

The most common reason for not doing assessments proactively is WADITW attitude—We Always Done It This Way.  Those words and thinking hamper any attempt to evaluate tasks, processes or whole departments.   Even if companies bring in new equipment, remodel/build a new space, or start/modify processes, the way in which they evaluate and determine the benefits and risks of “X” isn’t new—it’s done the same way they’ve always done it.  Therefore, the proactive analysis will often lack consideration of certain aspects which in turn results in a nondesirable outcome after implementation.


Reactive Assessments

Reactive assessments are those done after the fact, i.e. after something (usually bad) has happened.  The difficulty with investigating something after it has happened is due to outcome bias.  The way in which we analyze the cause of an incident is heavily influenced by the outcome.  If the outcome was bad, the investigator will usually come down more harshly on the person involved in the incident compared to if the outcome was neutral or good.  The person will also focus their attention on contributing factors directly related to the outcome instead of looking for causes away from the outcome.   It is easy (and quicker) to ignore or give little attention to things that on the surface may not look to be factors but in reality played a role in the outcome.   In this case we are “blind” again by what happened.  This typically causes us to only consider or investigate certain aspects instead of looking at the whole picture.  Caution should be taken with all reactive assessments so that the true cause isn’t missed or overlooked.


Essential Ergo Assessment Components

Besides the timing of the assessment, the most common problem I see when I audit ergonomic assessment is the absence of considering and evaluating all three components of ergonomics:  Physical Cognitive and Organizational.  When people hear ergonomics they typically think physical ergonomics, i.e. heights, reaches, force, repetition, duration, etc.  While the physical component of an ergonomics assessment is essential so are the other two.  If one or both of them are left out of the assessment then the determination of risks and solutions may not be accurate and complete.  Cognitive ergonomics in a nutshell means “designing for the mind”.  This involves taking what we know from cognitive psychology, human behaviors and natural tendencies to design the process, product, work, etc.  Organizational ergonomics focuses on optimizing socio-technical factors, organizational structures, culture, and policies and procedures.  An ergonomic assessment must consider all three components in order for accuracy and effectiveness.  (please see my blog for more information regarding the three components of ergonomics and questions to ask that address them)



Many companies “do” ergonomic assessments only to be disappointed in the outcome.  The primary reasons for this are considering only one or two components of ergonomics in the assessment and failing to realize the challenges based upon when the assessment is done (reactive or proactive).  The person(s) doing ergonomic assessments has to be aware of the biases and difficulties inherent to when the assessment is performed as well as have knowledge and skill related to all three aspect s of ergonomics.  When all of those things are considered and included, the outcomes of ergonomics assessments will be effective and highly beneficial for all those involved.