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By Greg Duncan, MELP, ASP, Sr. EHS & ESG Content Manager

Back in March, I attended the 2023 ProMat manufacturing and supply chain logistics conference in Chicago, Illinois and sat in on a session with three very accomplished ergonomics experts who provided some incredibly insightful and actionable guidance on how to improve workplace ergonomics program management.

The session was led by Gary Allread, Program Director for the Spine Research Institute at the Ohio State University, Will Heath, MS, CPE and Senior Ergonomist at North Carolina State University, and Tim Pottorff, MSc., CIE, ARM. The three-person panel answered a series of questions on the current state-of-the-art in ergonomics program management, and how to implement and maintain an effective workplace ergonomics program.

One question in particular prompted a wide-ranging discussion among the panel about the keys to a successful ergonomics program. Here’s a summary of what they had to say:

Question: What are the characteristics of the most successful ergonomics programs?

The expert panel highlighted several ergonomics program best practices that can be applied to any ergonomics program at any size organization, no matter what your level of program maturity. They are as follows:

Leadership and organizational structure

An ergonomics program, like any successful organizational program, requires a well-established organizational structure to manage its implementation and continuous improvement. This ensures that there is a formal ergonomics program management policy, the right stakeholders are involved at the right times, and that everyone has clear visibility of the program and their own roles and responsibilities within it. At the heart of that organizational structure is strong and committed leadership who’ll drive the momentum of continuous program improvement, enforce program policies, secure and provide program resources, and reinforce the workplace culture around ergonomics and MSD risk reduction.

Clear communication of ergonomics program benefits

At the root of any ergonomics program is one or more business needs. Whether it’s reducing MSD-related injuries or improving the efficiency and productivity of job tasks, ergonomics program activities and improvements are designed to directly address some business need. The key to building and sustaining broad stakeholder support for the ergonomics program and future program improvements is clearly communicating what business needs the ergonomics program is designed to address and how it addresses them. Stakeholders need to understand the value and purpose of the ergonomics program before they can truly support it.

‘Operationalize’ your ergonomics program to align with core organizational values

For a long time, many organizations viewed ergonomics and other EHS programs as separate or ‘siloed’ from other aspects of business operations. That perspective and culture is steadily changing, with leading organizations beginning to embrace the concept of operationalizing ergonomics 231where ergonomics is viewed as integral to the operational success of the business. No longer is ergonomics viewed as a cost center, but as a path to organizational growth and productivity, worker wellbeing and satisfaction, and social sustainability of the business.

Consultation of workers in performing assessments and identifying risk

Accurate MSD risk assessment is the foundation of effective ergonomics improvements. Certified Professional Ergonomists (CPEs) are the experts when it comes to performing MSD risk assessments, but the workers who they are evaluating possess equally valuable expertise in understanding the job tasks and processes they perform. However, workers can also provide incredible insights to help target jobs and processes for MSD risk assessment, and in developing the most effective MSD risk controls. Make sure to regularly consult with your workers when performing MSD risk assessments and designing/re-designing jobs or process improvements. This can include distributing employee questionnaires to solicit recommendations for ergonomic improvements and ensuring that those recommendations are given significant deference by the ergonomics team and management when prioritizing and selecting ergonomics program improvements.

More than that, make a genuine effort to engage your workers in the actual MSD risk assessment process, itself. Your first reaction might be that workers lack the specialized skill and expertise of a CPE to perform accurate MSD risk assessments independently, but emerging technologies like AI-assisted motion capture and analysis can go a long way in supplementing that skill and expertise to empower non-experts to perform highly accurate MSD risk assessments. This has the added benefit of lightening the MSD risk assessment workload for your in-house ergonomics experts and ergonomics team members. The takeaway here is that you should be encouraging and facilitating the participation of your work workers in ergonomics program activities. Doing so acknowledges and reinforces workers’ important stake in the success of the ergonomics program, and fosters a culture of inclusion, engagement, and ownership among workers’ for improving their own health and wellbeing.

Good housekeeping

A clean and organized work environment mirrors and reinforces the workstation design and technology improvements implemented through your ergonomics program. It also promotes a safer and healthier workplace by minimizing other types of EHS risks such as tripping hazards, hazardous chemical exposures, biological hazards, fire hazards and means of egress, and many others.   

Open and honest relationships between workers and managers

Along with clear communication of ergonomics program information, there needs to be a clear channel for workers, users of ergonomics equipment, and other ergonomics program stakeholders to communicate their concerns, questions, recommendations, and other feedback on how to improve jobs and workstation designs. As we’ve already noted, workers possess unique first-hand insights into how to reduce MSD risks and improve the efficiency of the job tasks they perform. Make sure you establish a formal means for them to communicate those insights up the chain, and that workers have clear visibility into how their feedback is being addressed by ergonomics program managers. If workers take the time and effort to participate in improving your ergonomics program, management and the ergonomics team needs to show that they value that input, and that it is being incorporated into ergonomics program improvements.  

Ergonomics isn’t just ‘checking a box’

Implementing some job or workstation design improvements in your workplace where workers are actively reporting MSD symptoms and then calling it a day simply won’t cut it. That’s not what an ergonomics program is. An effective ergonomics program is just that – a complete program that includes training, MSD risk assessment, job and workstation design improvements, reporting and communication to stakeholders, and a continuous improvement framework. Even more than that, an effective ergonomics program is characterized by a strong culture of worker health and wellbeing that permeates the organization. Everyone in the organization, especially management, needs to be truly committed to the intrinsic value of protecting workers’ health and wellbeing. The enhanced operational efficiency and worker productivity that can be achieved through effective ergonomics are simply an effect of that commitment.

Management buy-in

Securing the buy-in and support of management is essential to implementing and maintaining an effective ergonomics program. When management is genuinely committed to the long-term success of your ergonomics program, it gives you the foundation to expand the reach and impact of that program. When management buys in, it sends a clear signal that the company places great value and priority on the health and wellbeing of their employees, and it legitimizes the ergonomics program in the eyes of the entire organization. Top-down commitment from management also encourages employees to get involved in the program through “leading by example.” In addition, management support for the ergonomics program is a prerequisite to securing the budget for ergonomics improvements including equipment, program tools such as software, and other program initiatives.

Empower workers with good equipment & tools

Even with a well-established ergonomics program in-place, workers are likely to question your company’s commitment to their health and wellbeing if the ergonomics equipment and tools you use in the workplace are not well designed and easy to use. This includes not only material handling equipment, ergonomic furniture/workstations and work procedures, but also the tools you use to assess, document, track, and control MSD risks (i.e., ergonomics software).

If workers are asked to use overly complex equipment and tools, they are more likely to bypass them and revert to older, riskier, and less efficient ways of performing jobs. If this happens, not only will all of your effort and investment in ergonomics equipment and tools go to waste, but workers will disengage from your ergonomics program and you’ll be back at square one. Ergonomics equipment and tools should make jobs easier while also reducing MSD risks, and not make them more difficult or time consuming.

Top-down training prepares management for bottom-up feedback

Upper level management needs to learn the language of ergonomics and understand the structure, function, purpose, and value of your ergonomics program if they are to be equipped to understand the feedback and recommendations coming from workers and the ergonomics team on how to minimize MSD risks and improve worker health and wellbeing. As an ergonomics program leader, it’s your job to guide upper level management in learning the language of ergonomics so they can effectively engage with your ergonomics program and provide confident, competent program support.

For a common-sense introduction to ergonomics program structure and program management best practices, download our “Learn. Do. Manage.” eBook

The ergonomics team leads the way!

Even for small companies, managing an ergonomics program can be a challenging and time-consuming task. There’s a lot to do and, whether it’s developing and delivering training to workers, performing MSD risk assessments, implementing MSD risk controls and ergonomic improvements, or evaluating and reporting program performance, it’s a job too large for one person. You need an ergonomics team.

An ergonomics team has some basic core functions that align directly with the “Learn. Do. Manage.” ergonomics program management process:

  • Learn – provide and facilitate ergonomics training and education for workers and other ergonomics program stakeholders in your organization
  • Do – perform MSD risk assessments, prioritize interventions, oversee/perform job improvements
  • Manage – evaluate, communicate, and continuously improve ergonomics program performance  

To be as effective as possible in performing these functions, your ergonomics team should reflect the diversity of your workers and the unique structure of your organization. Remember, the fundamental goal of your ergonomics program is to design jobs around workers, and what better way to achieve that goal than by incorporating the expertise and experience of a diverse group of individuals into your team. When building your ergonomics team, be sure to consider workforce demographic characteristics such as age, gender, language, skill and education level, and physical ability. This will help you to consider and address the needs of the broadest possible segment of your workforce, make jobs and workstation designs as inclusive as possible, and improve performance in the social aspects of ESG.

Each department or division in your workplace should have representation on your ergonomics team, and member selection should consider whether they are reliable, enthusiastic, innovative, communicative, willing to learn, results-oriented, and committed to the goals of your ergonomics program.

Have a strong representative up the chain (a.k.a. your ergonomics program champion)

Managing an effective ergonomics program is a team effort, but communicating program performance to top-level management and securing their buy-in and support is often championed by one individual. This may be your on-site ergonomist (if you have one) but is more often an EHS manager or director, or someone more generally in charge of workplace health and safety. If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance that’s you!

Like all good leaders, an ergonomics program champion needs to wear two hats. One when leading the ergonomics team and working with employees to implement ergonomic improvements throughout the workplace. The other when working with management to secure their buy-in and support for those improvements and the ergonomics program, at large. To be successful in this area, an ergonomics program champion needs to establish a strong relationship and high level of trust with management and have a clear channel for communicating program information up the chain. This is greatly aided by having one or more solid allies among the C-Suite or management team who you can work and communicate with directly and who can ‘go to bat’ for you when you need them. This is especially important when it comes time to request additional budget or approvals from management for ergonomics program improvements such as equipment purchases and other program resources.

Piloting program improvements

No matter how big or small, ergonomics program improvements represent a change in the way your organization does things. Often, ergonomics improvements necessitate a change in the equipment or tools workers use and how they perform job tasks, and unfortunately, people are often resistant to change. There’s a lot I could say about change management and various strategies for building broad stakeholder support for ergonomics program improvements, but the one strategy I want to highlight here is the concept of ‘piloting’ your ergonomic program improvements.

You don’t have to implement your ergonomic program improvements across the entire organization all at once. That’s not really realistic, even for smaller organizations, but is typically even less likely to succeed the larger your organization is. If you have multiple locations, try rolling out your ergonomic improvements at one location first. You may even want to roll out improvements across individual departments, individual job processes, or even individual workstations.

The greater your level of uncertainty around the effectiveness of potential ergonomic improvements, the more cautious and deliberate you want to be in implementing them. Ergonomic improvements are in some ways experimental, especially in the case of unique or non-routine jobs. Effective ergonomics means assessing MSD risks and worker performance both before and after you implement ergonomic improvements to ensure they are truly effective at reducing MSD risks. Why take the chance of making a significant investment in ergonomics equipment or process re-design if it will not actually improve worker safety, efficiency, and productivity? You may find value in piloting ergonomics program improvements to ensure they give you the greatest value and are well received by workers.   

Speak the language/build the business case for your audience

When it comes time to secure stakeholder buy-in and support for ergonomics program improvements, be sure to frame the discussion around which stakeholder(s) you’re trying to persuade. Speak the language of your stakeholders and match your message to the audience. Your stakeholders have their own needs, interests, and goals and are likely to be focused on how the proposed improvements will affect their specific roles and benefit them.

Let’s look at the example of ergonomics software solutions as an improvement that can expand the reach and impact of your ergonomics program. When purchasing and implementing an ergonomics software solution, managers and executives may be primarily concerned with how the software can support productivity and the bottom line, or how it can help more effectively control risk and safeguard the company’s reputation. IT personnel may be focused on how the software supports data security and IT systems integration, and what support their team will need to provide to implement and maintain the software. HR and EHS personnel may be most focused on how it will help create a safer, healthier workplace and make their jobs easier.

For help building an effective business case and justifying financial support for your ergonomics program, check out our Ergonomics ROI Calculators to see how much your business can benefit through ergonomics program improvements.

Need More Ergonomics Program Resources? VelocityEHS Can Help!

If you’re interested in learning more about how to optimize your own ergonomics program, click here to access our library of ergonomics resources developed by our very own in-house team of CPEs and ergonomics experts.

While you’re there, check out our Industrial Ergonomics Solution, part of the VelocityEHS Accelerate® Platform. Our Industrial Ergonomics Solution gives you and your ergonomics team access to on-demand eLearning content to help easily train workers across your entire organization, innovative sensorless motion-capture AI technology to simplify and enhance your MSD risk assessment capabilities, ActiveEHS®-driven MSD risk controls that put the combined expertise of VelocityEHS certified professional ergonomists right at your fingertips, and comprehensive ergonomics program management capabilities that help you spend less time trying to identify MSD risks and more time making the ergonomic improvements that support a healthy, happy, and productive workforce.

Request a Demo to learn how VelocityEHS can help you implement and maintain a world-class ergonomics program for your business.