Benefits of Ergonomic Interventions
by Geoff Peters, April 2005
Despite the best efforts of researchers to quantify the costs and benefits of ergonomics, perhaps it is not yet entirely clear that ergonomic interventions are appropriate for all organizations. However, a great deal of research in the literature has attempted to examine the effectiveness of ergonomic interventions, and in this brief paper I will discuss evidence which suggests that ergonomic interventions do solve real problems, are cost effective, and are linked to higher productivity increases and lower injury rates.
Before examining whether specific ergonomic interventions are effective, it is first important to determine whether ergonomics have a true physical component as well as a psychological one. This is because some arguments have been made that ergonomic-related illness is largely a problem of perception and attitude towards work. It might be argued that if a person is aware of the nature of their work and takes appropriate breaks, then musculoskeletal disorders associated with poor ergonomics will be less likely to occur. But a recent study, “Fatigue in the Forearm Resulting From Low-Level Repetitive Ulnar Deviation” shows that even if a person psychologically and physically determines an appropriate amount of repetitive motions that can be performed in a work period, that a measurable amount of low frequency fatigue (LFF) is still present after the work is performed. Over time, this fatigue can build up and result in injury. The study concludes that, “psychophysical acceptable levels [of a repetitive task] may not prevent the onset and development of LFF” (Dennerlein, Ciriello, Kerin, & Johnson, 2003).
Some researchers have attempted to examine the relationship between musculoskeletal disorders (MSD’s) and workplace productivity. In a 2001 study, Conway and Svenson concluded that for the period 1992-1999, “across all industries for which data were available, lower MSD rates were significantly correlated with higher productivity increases” (p.53). They attribute these productivity increases to workers becoming more efficient and “working without the danger of physically breaking down because of awkward or repetitive motion or violent impacts on the body” (p.29).
Conway and Svenson also noted that “employees in industries with high MSD rates had below average hourly earnings and recorded low productivity gains” (2001, p.32). This finding is important because it highlights the inequalities between different industries and the fact that some workplaces are much more prone to MSD injuries than others. For example, the study ranks nursing and personal care facilities as having the highest MSD rate (2001, p.40) but listed retail stores and mailing, reproduction, and stenographics as having the greatest decrease in MSD rate from 1992 to 1998 (p.38).
While this discussion is focused primarily on first world countries such as Canada and the USA, it is also useful to expand the perspective and consider for a moment the developing world. Shikdar and Sawaqed’s 2003 study of worker productivity and occupational health and safety issues in the developing country of Oman concluded that “little or no ergonomics was used and practically no ergonomics training was provided to workers” and that workers’ “health problems indicated of ergonomic deficiencies in the work system” (p.572). Although it can be shown that working conditions are poorer in developing countries, it is interesting to note that ergonomics or the lack thereof still do have a large impact on the health of workers in these countries.
A 1997 study by Resnick and Zanotti showed “workstations can be designed to maximize performance and reduce costs by considering both ergonomics and productivity together” (p.185). Other researchers support this claim, such as Hendrick (2003) who concludes that “most ergonomics projects worth doing can be justified in terms of their economic benefits” (p.426). A recent review of various ergonomics standards by researchers in the Netherlands reveals that both economic benefits and social benefits can be achieved by applying ergonomics effectively, with economic benefits such as cycle time reductions and social benefits such as improved worker health and improved motivation (Dul, de Vriesa, Verschoofb, Eveleensc & Feilzera, 2004, p.208).
Regardless of whether ergonomic interventions are directly tied to productivity increases, the reality is that a significant number of workers do suffer from repetitive motion injuries, as well as overexertion due to heavy lifting. As cited by Eve Tahmincioglu, the “U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 58,576 cases of repetitive-motion injuries in 2002 and 208,260 cases involving overexertion due to heavy lifting” (2004, p.60). Indeed, a company which keeps the interests of its employees in mind should definitely be aware of, and closely monitor, the levels of injury occurring in its workplace. As Dul et al. reveal, “much of the ergonomics knowledge [known by scientists and ergonomics professionals] has not yet reached engineers and managers” (2004). Thus, managers should also seek to become aware of the many different types of ergonomic interventions that are possible, and the effectiveness of these interventions.
Karsh, Moro, and Smith (2001) analyzed 101 peer-reviewed studies which “examine the efficacy of workplace ergonomic interventions to control musculoskeletal disorders (WMSD)”. This broad range of studies encompassed various types of ergonomic interventions ranging from “ergonomic and/or lifting training as the only or primary intervention” to “tools or technologies as the only interventions”, as well as some studies which involved “multiple intervention components”. Karsh et al. concluded that “engineering, administrative, and person-focused interventions can be effective in reducing WMSD” and that the results show that “most effective interventions are the multiple component interventions” (2001 , p.64).
Conway, H., Svenson, J. (2001). Musculoskeletal Disorders and Productivity. Journal of Labor Research, Winter2001, Vol. 22 Issue 1, p29.
Dennerlein, J.T., Ciriello, V. M., Kerin, K.J., and Johnson, P.W. (2003). Fatigue in the Forearm Resulting From Low-Level Repetitive Ulnar Deviation. AIHA Journal, Fairfax: Nov/Dec 2003, Vol.64 Issue 6; p799.
Shikdar, A., and Sawaqed, N. (2003). Worker productivity, and occupational health and safety issues in selected industries. Computers & Industrial Engineering. Volume 45, Issue 4 , December 2003, pp563-572.
Resnick, M. L., and Zanotti, A. (1997) Using ergonomics to target productivity improvements. Computers & Industrial Engineering. Volume 33, Issues 1-2 , October 1997, Pages 185-188.
Hendrick, H. (2003) Determining the cost–benefits of ergonomics projects and factors that lead to their success. Applied Ergonomics. Volume 34, Issue 5 , September 2003, Pages 419-427 .
Dula, J., de Vriesa, H., Verschoofb, S., Eveleensc, W. and Feilzera, A. (2004). Combining economic and social goals in the design of production systems by using ergonomics standards. Computers & Industrial Engineering. Volume 47, Issues 2-3 , November 2004, Pages 207-222.
Karsh, B. Moro, F., and Smith, M. (2001) The efficacy of workplace ergonomic interventions to control musculoskeletal disorders: a critical analysis of the peer-reviewed literature. Theoretical Issues in Ergonomics Science; Jan2001, Vol. 2 Issue 1, p23, 74p.
Tahmincioglu, Eve. (2004) Ergonomics is back on the radar screen for both business and regulators. Workforce Management; Jul2004; 83, 7, ABI/INFORM Global. p.59.
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