Have you heard the saying “Mother knows best”? Well, when it comes to ergonomics in the workplace the saying should be “Employees know best.” An ergonomists’ role is to optimize safety, productivity, and comfort. Ergonomics should be ‘invisible’, meaning that the work environment should be intuitive and comfortable for the employees while allowing the employees to be highly productive and efficient without really needing to think about every movement. Great successes have come from situations when the employees are actively partnering every step of the way while determining the risks and how to resolve them. With proper coaching employees can become empowered and effective in influencing their own comfort and safety. This approach works well for several reasons:
- Employees who perform the work may have excellent ideas on how to improve. Often times it is not until someone asks them do they share their ideas and suggestions.
- Employees take the responsibility so they ‘own’ the problems and solutions.
- Commitment is great so the effects of the efforts are sustainable over time.
Key Elements of Participatory Ergonomics Program
- Have them share their experiences with their peers.
- Get the employees involved to identify problems and suggest solutions.
- For example, allow employees to choose the names of the solutions and/or tools created to personalize and create a sense of ownership.
- Take action on employees suggestions and clearly communicate what did and did not work.
- Recognize employees’ efforts.
Establish Defined Processes and Roles
- Clearly define the goals, steps, priorities, decision making processes and the various team members roles so everyone will be on the same page.
One Size Does Not Fit All
- Allow for Flexibility in doing tasks.
- Ergonomic solutions should not have a ‘cookie cutter’ approach, but rather offer several safe options for employees. For example: if developing best practices for a task identify 2-3 safe ways for employees to perform the task.
Align Program with Integrated Safety Management (ISM)
- Participatory ergonomics easily fits within the ISM framework. The ISM steps: define the risk- analyze risk- develop and implement controls- perform the work-utilize feedback for continuous improvement are the exact steps that can be taken for a successful ergonomics program.
- This approach compliments the continuous improvement process.
Benefits of Implementation
- Increased Productivity
- Improved Quality of Work
- Improvement in Employee Morale
- Cost Savings both in possible reduction in injury-related and production costs
- Time Savings
Challenges of Implementation
- Change, and the uncertainty of change is a challenge for individuals and organizations.
- Risk of short term increase in the # of reported injuries because of the heightened awareness.
- Buy-in from management and the up front costs associated with training and education.
- Time needed to integrating ergonomics into procurement and workplace layouts.
- Requires risk on behalf of management to relinquish some control to employees.
- Must provide employees and supervisors with the time and resources
Assess Where You are Currently
Do you have management’s buy-in and commitment? This is essential!
Evidence of their commitment may include:
- Budget for equipment, design cost, and time for fabrication of prototypes.
- Ensuring that staff are given dedicated time to work on ergonomics issues.
- Specific time allocation in staff and safety meetings to discuss and acknowledge ergonomic program initiatives.
Determine What Resources are Needed
Explore if your internal resources have the skills needed to address your operations and technology.
Skills and background should include:
- Knowledge of ergonomics
- Assessing ergonomic risk
- Identify strategies to reduce risk
- Conducting training
- Design and fabrication of prototypes
If you’ve identified any gaps, consider utilization of outside resources.
Determine Who Should be Trained and Train Them on How to Identify Risks, Prevention, and Control Methods.
- Training should be very specific to the risks and the tasks of the work area.
- Should include supervisors, management, engineering, and facilities.
- When possible, training should require participant interaction and problem solving.
Identify Problem Areas
- Identifying problems can occur informally by having employees assess the various tasks performed throughout the day in terms of fatigue level and comfort level
- Formal risk assessments can be utilized to determine potentially at-risk tasks. See References section below for specific risk assessment tools.
- Problem identification should be coupled with some sort of risk rating in terms of the ergonomic risk, resources (time, money and effort hours), and ease completion. This step can help you identify and prioritize problem areas to begin your efforts.
Determine a Prioritization System of Projects to Address Problem Areas
- Identify the “low hanging fruit” and work to eliminate the problems that require little to no resources (quick fixes).
- Prioritize efforts by considering the degree of impact and costs associated with fixing ergonomic risks.
Develop and Try Solutions
- Once you have identified and prioritized the problem areas begin to develop possible solutions. It is helpful to have brainstorming sessions to allow all ideas to be brought to the table.
- It is often hard for employees to evaluate the effectiveness of a possible solution until they can ‘see’ or ‘feel’ the solution in a three dimensional way.
- Having a mock up made of simple materials such as foam, wood, or cardboard can be effective for allowing employees to try out solutions without expending a large amount of time or money.
- Develop a way for employees to rate and provide comments about the various options in order to help develop the final solutions by integrating employee feedback.
Clearly Define Roles and Responsibilities
- Provide coaching or support for supervisors and employees.
- Clear roles and responsibilities will make sure projects or efforts are assigned to various team members with clear accountability and expectations.
What You Should Know
Employees and supervisors should have basic knowledge about ergonomics in the following:
- Ergonomic-related risk factors and symptoms
- Ways to identify and assess hazards specific to job tasks
- Safe use of tools, equipment and materials
- Understanding of safe work practices and processes
- Mechanisms for reporting concerns or ideas
Are You on the Right Track?
Know Where You Are Now… Establish Baselines
Baselines may include metrics on injuries, quantity and types of high, medium, and low risk tasks, # of employees/supervisors who are participating in your program, training statistics, employee survey feedback results, turn around time of completing solutions, and number of proactive efforts to reduce risks.
Decide on Measurements and Monitor Your Progress
After you know where you are then decide on some metrics that you will continue to monitor and track in order to determine the effectiveness of your efforts. Try to identify leading indicators and lagging indicators to monitor your progress.
Examples of Leading Indicators are:
- Number of completed solutions
- Return on investment/ cost benefit analysis
- Employee satisfaction
- Waste reduction
- Cost savings
- Risk reduction
Examples of Lagging Indicators are:
- Change in injury rate
- Change in costs
Ask and Solicit Feedback
Employees are a great source of information to judge if you are on the right track. Employee surveys about comfort, use of tool/equipment, or utilization of new process can be helpful. Consider whether anonymous surveys may yield more effective and accurate information.
Establish Mechanisms for Quantifying and Qualifying the Risk Before and After Implementation
When possible use ergonomic risk assessment tools such as the BORG scale to rate employees comfort or use other ergonomics tools to help validate and confirm your efforts have made a positive difference. See References section below for complete listings of Ergonomic Risk Assessment Tools.
Frequently, once a great idea is established, that idea is not shared with others. The potential to expand the impact of the hard work associated with developing best practices can be wide spread if efforts are made to share them within and outside an organization. If you taken the effort to develop best practices consider applying just a small amount of additional effort to document and share the best practices. If you are looking to create best practices for your organization consider searching for best practices and ideas from others. This can save you a lot of time and effort.
What Does the Research Say?
Here are two articles detailing research about participatory ergonomics:
- Reduction in injuries and workers compensation costs
- Employees with back pain involvement in establishing job modifications
Participatory Ergonomics by K. Noro and Andrew S. Imada, Taylor & Francis; 1 edition (August 1, 1991)
Participatory ergonomics focuses on the way of involving workers in decisions which directly affect their well-being. Its aim is to match the technological developments and requirements of the business to the human needs of the workforce. This book details different participatory methods for introducing and implementing ergonomics. The rationale, value, tools and guidelines are reviewed by specialists in the area, and specific applications are considered for a range of settings, problems and organizational cultures. This book highlights the need for employee participation to be included in current and future business plans by discussing the experiences of practical case studies where ergonomic changes have been implemented.
Resource for further information on participatory ergonomics programs:
Ergonomic Risk Assessment Tools