How to Simplify Your Ergonomics Program Management System

Many large companies continue to struggle with reducing workplace MSDs and establishing effective and efficient ergonomics programs. Taking a management system approach to your ergonomics program may seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. Fundamentally, a management system is a plan to accomplish an objective. Read on for tips on how to establish an achievable ergonomics plan and proactive process that focuses on risk reduction rather than incident management.

Plan the Right Way

Select the people who can help make a great plan. These people will be involved in giving input to the plan and making decisions about the plan. It is a good idea to include people in senior leadership roles and front-line functions. Both will bring necessary insights for a successful plan and together will form your program leadership support.

I prefer to start the planning process by defining the objective. The goal should be short enough to quickly state, minimize jargon so that it is easily understood, and focus on risk rather than the incidents.

With the goal in place, it is time to ask, “Where are we now?” What do you have in place that could help you towards that goal? This can include things like a good safety team, established continuous improvement processes, and current/past elements of an ergonomics program. This is usually the easier question; the tougher question is identifying things that could be barriers and items that may be missing.

This gaps and fit analysis is your guide for the next activity—identifying the steps that would get you from where you are now to your objective. This is the foundation of your program management system. Things to consider during this process:

    • Which tasks need to happen at each step? Who is best positioned to perform those tasks? This becomes the roles and responsibilities section of your program.
    • What awareness, knowledge, and skills will people need to accomplish their assigned responsibilities? This is your training plan.
    • What resources (primarily time and money) might be needed for each step? At this stage, the resource discussion often includes general ranges rather than specific budget requests. (Although it isn’t too early to start discussing which budget(s) will be responsible for activities.)
    • How will you monitor progress toward your goal and verify that you are on track? These form the basis for the regularly reported metrics and the criteria for future program audits.

None of this gets any job fixed; and isn’t that the reason we are talking about ergonomics? Experience demonstrates that without a supporting management system in place, efforts to improve the workplace quickly stall out. This can lead to the impression by both frontline employees and management that “ergonomics doesn’t work here,” creating an even larger barrier to future changes. Still, that framework isn’t what your ergonomics program is about.

Turn Your Plan into a Process

The heart of your ergonomics management system is the job improvement process. But it’s not as simple as just making the fixes that people ask for. That will devolve into an employee suggestion program, which is fine it its own right, but it isn’t ergonomics. Here are some keys to success for deployment of the ergonomics job improvement process:

  • Prioritize on two levels. The first level of prioritization is determining which jobs, or departments, to assess first. Often that priority is based on past musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). However, if you have a strong safety effort that implements changes after each incident, these jobs with past MSDs could now be among the safest in your facility. When you have narrowed your initial scope, the risk assessments form the next level of prioritization. Your risk assessment tool should provide sufficient distinction between jobs that you can use the scoring when planning which jobs to fix first. If every job has the same, or nearly the same, risk score, the assessment tool you are using isn’t serving at least one important purpose.
  • Understand the problem before you jump from risk assessment to implementing changes. Fixing the wrong problem may be worse than doing nothing. Here again, you should choose a risk assessment tool that provides outputs that can help to isolate the factors contributing to the problem. This can include information about specific body joints or regions. It may also include information about exposures to known risk factors such as awkward postures, excessive force, repetition, and long durations. In some cases, the assessment tool output will help you link a risk factor exposure to a specific activity within the job. Combine the direction provided by the risk assessment tool with conversations involving the person doing the job. The operator’s understanding of the job is indispensable for uncovering the real causes of the risk factor exposures.
  • Develop solutions options based on the causes you identified. When solutions are based on causes that are linked to the identified risk exposures, you can be confident that you are fixing the right problems. However, your job isn’t done yet. Not all solutions are created equal. There are three very effective approaches (and they can be used in combination) to use when choosing between solutions.
    1. The most basic is the hierarchy of controls. The most effective way to reduce risk is to eliminate the exposure to that risk. The next most effective is to re-engineer the work to minimize exposure to that risk.
      • NOTE: This is my biggest concern with Jeff Bezos’ recent announcement about pursuing job rotation as a prevention for MSDs. I suspect every ergonomist was as excited as I was to hear Amazon’s founder talk about MSDs and ergonomics. Most were likely just as concerned about the emphasis on job rotation. It’s important to keep a couple things in mind: 1) a control measure developed within Amazon would impact thousands of jobs 2) even a small reduction in MSDs for Amazon would result in giant cost savings. Most of our organizations aren’t Amazon. We need to consider the financial return in our own organization.
    1. Another simple tool for selecting solution alternatives is a cost vs impact chart. This provides a quick way to sort alternatives and focus on ones that will have the highest payback. This tool works best for those solutions that are most clearly in the outer corner of a quadrant, as solutions move closer to the center lines, it is often necessary to turn to a return on investment (ROI) calculation.
    2. ROI varies based on how and when it is being used. An ROI for comparing alternate solutions doesn’t require exact numbers. Projections and estimations are sufficient for choosing between alternatives. If two solution options are similar enough that they would need a detailed ROI to distinguish between them, these should probably be considered equivalent at this stage and other factors used to distinguish between them.
  • Verify the improvement. Every ergonomics improvement works on paper (or in the mind of the person who conceived it). Unfortunately, some don’t achieve the risk reduction anticipated and few are simply too hard to use to be effective. We need to know if we improved that job and also understand any residual MSD risks.
  • Standardize effective improvements. When a solution has been verified as effective, it needs to be incorporated into the standard work, included in design and purchasing specifications, and applied to similar work whether it is at the same location or other locations around the world.

Implementing an ergonomics program management system shouldn’t be a daunting task. If any part feels complicated, focus on what that aspect of the program is trying to accomplish, rather than details about what should be included in that step. Learn more about our 5-Step Program Management Process and consider going deeper on this topic by joining one of our recurring online seminars.