People + Process = Performance

Ergonomics Management System

Recently I gave a presentation at Safety 2013, ASSE’s professional development conference called the “Nuts and Bolts of Effective and Sustainable Ergonomics Programs”.  The “Nuts and Bolts” focused on the management system of ergonomics, not on the tools and methods used for ergonomic assessment.  I did this because the reasons most programs, whether ergonomics or other, fail is because they lack a management/business system.  Thinking of ergonomics in terms of a management system isn’t routine or common to most people who are responsible for ergonomics.  This was verified by the comments I received following my presentation. The comments ranged from (I’ve taken the liberty of combining the words/theme into these statement), “I never thought of ergonomics as a system before and look forward to applying it at my company” to “I thought I was going to hear about the “Nuts and Bolts” of ergonomics—I wanted to hear tools of evaluation, you should include stretching as part of ergonomics.  Management systems have nothing to do with ergonomics”.  I firmly believe the very opposite of the latter statement.  Why?  There are several reasons but first let me give you an example.

(This story is based on several clients that we’ve worked with who tried to implement ergonomics and had it fail prior to us working with them.)  Company XYZ decided they would learn and “do” ergonomics and in their manufacturing area as their safety manager decided the area had “ergonomic injury issues”.  The safety manager got approval from his supervisor to do an “ergonomics program”.  The program consisted of training employees on ergonomics and conducting ergonomic evaluations of the workstations with the goal to eliminate the risks as much as possible and to increase employee awareness of the risks involved in their jobs.  Over the next few months all frontline employees were trained on “ergonomics” (training focused on posture, anatomy, body mechanics, musculoskeletal disorders, stretching, etc.).  The safety manager along with a few employees who belonged to the safety committee performed ergonomic evaluations of the workstations deemed at highest risk.  Some changes were made and the risk level was reduced in those areas.  Success you might say…well, not so fast.  Soon another priority program can along, the company was very busy and the attention to ergonomics steadily dropped to the point where it became one the many things that “we did and now let’s move on to the next one”.   In other words the program was viewed by management and employees as just another safety “project” and was checked off the list.  Without a management system perspective ergonomics will continue to be a project or a “fad/flavor of the month” that sounds good for a while but then disappears or a remnant remains that is used every now and then when a need arises.

The above story occurs all too frequently and is, in my opinion, a sad commentary on the minimal value and importance organizations and their leaders/management place on ergonomics.  If ergonomics is to gain respect and be seen as a “must do” for organizations, a management system approach and utilization of all components (not just physical) of ergonomics is needed.  The IEA definition must be known, “ergonomics (human factors)…focuses on improving human well-being and … system performance”.  This was the basis for my “Nuts and Bolts of Effective and Sustainable Ergonomics Programs”.  It’s time we move away from the stereotypes of ergonomics (as “the chair”, “posture police”, “stretching”) and actual do real ergonomics.

Here were the 6 keys to effective and sustainable ergonomics programs that I presented:

  1. Use of a systems approach to ergonomics throughout the organization
  2. Incorporation of ergonomics into the mission and strategic initiatives of the organization
  3. Development of an effective business case by identifying and including all key stakeholders
  4. Ergonomics performance standards built into job descriptions and/or performance reviews at all levels of the organization
  5. Continuous evaluation and improvement of the ergonomics program
  6. Integration of ergonomics within the operational excellence/quality department or ideally in the  business systems of an organization

For those who commented that the keys presented were “not ergonomics” or not needed, I wish I could have asked you why you think that way.  Perhaps the stereotype is so ingrained that thinking beyond convention does not apply.  Would these same people say the same for continuous improvement systems, lean management systems, customer service systems, sales systems, etc.?

I’ve been wondering where this stereotype of ergonomics (a project and focusing on the physical aspects) came from.  Was it always this way?  That’s a topic for another blog.

Maybe I’m the one who is thinking about this wrong.  What do you think?  Your comments are welcome.