Fred A. Manuele, author of On the Practice of Safety, considers occupational ergonomics to be "the art and science of designing the work to fit the worker to achieve optimum productivity and cost efficiency, and minimum risk of injury." To best fulfill the goal to achieve these benefits through ergonomics, a sound program should be developed. A program that includes a written plan, education, training, and effective procedures to identify, analyze, and evaluate work for ergonomic risk factors.
As with other workplace safety and health issues, managers and employees both play key roles in setting the stage: developing and carrying out an ergonomics program. It's important that management understand the benefits of an effective ergonomics program.
Ergonomics programs should not be regarded as separate from those intended to address other workplace hazards. Aspects of hazard identification, case documentation, assessment of control options, and health care management techniques that are used to address ergonomic problems use the same approaches directed toward other workplace risks of injury or disease. Although many of the technical approaches described in this course are specific to ergonomic risk factors and MSDs, the core principles are the same as efforts to control other workplace hazards.
Proactive ergonomics activities emphasize efforts at the design stage of work processes to recognize needs for avoiding risk factors that can lead to musculoskeletal problems. The goal is to design operations that ensure proper selection and use of tools, job methods, workstation layouts, and materials that impose no undue stress and strain on the worker.
Ergonomics issues are identified and resolved in the planning process. In addition, general ergonomic knowledge, learned from an ongoing ergonomics program, can be used to build a more prevention-oriented approach.
Management commitment and employee involvement in the planning activity are essential. For example, management can set policies to require ergonomic considerations for any equipment to be purchased and production employees can offer ideas on the basis of their past experiences for alleviating potential problems.
Planners of new work processes involved in the design of job tasks, equipment, and workplace layout, must become more aware of ergonomic factors and principles. Designers must have appropriate information and guidelines about risk factors for MSDs and ways to control them. Studying past designs of jobs in terms of risk factors can offer useful input into their design strategies.
Management commitment is a key and perhaps the most important controlling factor in determining whether any worksite hazard control effort will be successful. Management commitment is more than just "support." Support is merely talk, but real commitment is expressed by actually backing up that talk with action which takes time and money. Remember, support = talk and commitment = action!
Management commitment can be expressed in a variety of ways. Lessons learned from NIOSH case studies of ergonomic hazard control efforts in the meatpacking industry emphasize the following points regarding evidence of effective management commitment:
Policy statements are issued that:
Resources are committed to:
It's important to furnish information to all those involved in or affected by the ergonomic activities. Misinformation or misperceptions about such efforts can be damaging: If management is seen as using the program to gain ideas for cutting costs or improving productivity without equal regard for employee benefits, the program may not be supported by employees. For example, management should be up-front regarding possible impacts of the program on job security and job changes. All injury data, production information, and cost considerations need to be made available to those expected to make feasible recommendations for solving problems.
Promoting employee involvement in efforts to improve workplace ergonomic conditions has several benefits. They include:
Worker involvement in safety and health issues means obtaining worker input on several issues.
Employee participation in an organization's efforts to reduce work-related injury or disease and ergonomic problems may take the form of direct or individual input. A common involvement process is participation through a joint labor-management safety and health committee, which may be company-wide or department-wide in nature. Membership on company-wide committees includes union leaders or elected worker representatives, department heads, and key figures from various areas of the organization.
To increase worker involvement in identifying and solving ergonomics-related issues in the workplace, management must show commitment by doing the following:
Making sure ergonomics is a formal (written) part of the safety and health management system by developing ergonomics policies, programs, process, procedures and safe practices.
Sharing information about ergonomics and the results of inspections and workplace analysis.
Training both in ergonomic hazard recognition and control through active participation and group problem solving.
Positive recognition for those who participate in ergonomics as well as other safety activities.
No single form or level of worker involvement fits all situations or meets all needs. Much depends on the nature of the problems to be addressed, the skills and abilities of those involved, and the company's prevailing practices for participative approaches in resolving workplace issues.
Ergonomic problems typically require a response that cuts across a number of organizational units. Hazard identification through job task analyses and review of injury records or symptom surveys, as well as the development and implementation of control measures, can require input from:
In addition, worker and management representatives are considered essential players in any ergonomics program effort.
In small businesses, two or more of the functions noted on this list may be merged into one unit, or one person may handle several of the listed duties. Regardless of the size of the organization, persons identified with these responsibilities are crucial to an ergonomics program. Purchasing personnel in particular should be included, since the issues raised can dictate new or revised specifications on new equipment orders.
How best to fit these different players into the program could depend on the company's existing occupational safety and health program practices. Integrating ergonomics into the company's current occupational safety and health activities while giving it special emphasis may have the most appeal.
Taking a proactive approach to ergonomics is so important to the success of the program. Maximizing employee involvement is one of the keys to a successful proactive ergonomics program. When employees identify and help devise solutions, they gain a degree of ownership. We value what we own. Ownership increases the probability that "EC" (ergonomically correct ;-) behaviors are performed when employees are not being directly supervised.