I’ve discussed how to communicate the value of ergonomics to business stakeholders more than a dozen times at national conferences, corporate leadership meetings, and in articles and videos. My presentations focus on how and why to develop a business case for initiating and sustaining an ergonomics process in a variety of industries. I’m driven to continue the discussion on this topic because I’ve seen many occupational and environmental health and safety professionals fail to get ergonomics improvements approved at their companies. Their proposals often end up at the bottom of the trash—either literally or figuratively. I’ve heard of and seen this happen many times during my 20-plus years as an ergonomics consultant. OEHS professionals want to know: how can they get management to listen?

USE CASE STUDIES AS PROOF When potential results are quantified, people listen. When actual results and success stories are shared, heads nod. Following are a few examples from companies that have successfully communicated the value of ergonomics and achieved the desired results.  Using numbers to secure funding. A company that designs, manufactures, sells, and services diesel engines and related technology needed to show an attractive return on investment to secure funding for implementing an ergonomics process. In 2013, company leadership set an initiative to establish a standardized global ergonomics assessment methodology. The corporate ergonomics specialist and his team implemented a data-driven approach to manage the process.  Using a software solution, the ergonomics team was able to identify and aggregate data on global musculoskeletal disorder risks, which allowed them to prioritize and mitigate MSD risks. They built their business case for ergonomics on these data-driven outputs, and the team was able to secure funding for interventions based on the level of risk for each job as scored by the software. The ergonomics team found the software-generated reports—which brought the data together in a clean, visual package—useful for all audiences, including management. 
RESOURCES Academy of Management Review: “Toward a Theory of Stakeholder Identification and Salience: Defining the Principle of Who and What Really Counts” (1997). Applied Ergonomics: “Economic Evaluation of a Participatory Ergonomics Intervention in a Textile Plant” (2013). Bureau of Labor Statistics: “Nonfatal Occupational Injuries and Illnesses Requiring Days Away from Work, 2014” (November 2015; accessed January 2016). Ergonomics: “A Strategy for Human Factors/Ergonomics: Developing the Discipline and Profession” (2012). Ergonomics: “Impact of Task Design on Task Performance and Injury Risk: Case Study of a Simulated Drilling Task” (August 2016). European Agency for Safety and Health at Work: “OSH in Figures: Work-related Musculoskeletal Disorders in the EU—Facts and Figures” (2010).  Harvard Law School Labor and Worklife Program Pensions and Capital Stewardship Project: “The Materiality of Human Capital to Corporate Financial Performance” (2015). Human Factors and Ergonomics in Manufacturing & Service Industries: “The Impact of Poor Assembly Ergonomics on Product Quality: A Cost-benefit Analysis in Car Manufacturing” (2010). International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics: “Assembly Failures and Action Cost in Relation to Complexity Level and Assembly Ergonomics in Manual Assembly (Part 2)” (2014). International Journal of Operations & Production Management: “Human Factors: Spanning the Gap Between OM and HRM” (2010). Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine: “The Link Between Work Force Health and Safety and the Health of the Bottom Line: Tracking Market Performance of Companies That Nurture a ‘Culture of Health’” (2013). Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine: “The Stock Performance of C. Everett Koop Award Winners Compared with the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index” (2016).  Journal of Safety Research: “Estimating the Effectiveness of Ergonomics Interventions Through Case Studies: Implications for Predictive Cost-benefit Analysis” (2008).  NIOSH: “Musculoskeletal Disorders and Workplace Factors: A Critical Review of Epidemiologic Evidence for Work-related Musculoskeletal Disorders of the Neck, Upper Extremity and Low Back” (1997). Oxford University Press: “Occupational and Environmental Health: Recognizing and Preventing Disease and Injury,” chapter on musculoskeletal disorders (2011).  Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health: “Effect of Systematic Ergonomic Hazard Identification and Control Implementation on Musculoskeletal Disorder and Injury Risk” (January 2014). S&P Global Market Intelligence: “How Social Risk and Opportunities Factors into Global Corporate Ratings” (2018). The Academy of Management Journal: “Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work” (1990). The Lancet: “Understanding Disease, Injury, and Risk” (2012). The Lancet: “Years Lived with Disability (YLDs) for 1160 Sequelae of 289 Diseases and Injuries 1990-2010: A Systematic Analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2010” (2012). Work: “30 Years of Ergonomics at 3M: A Case Study” (2012).
Maintaining open communication. In organizations with multiple divisions and facilities, open communication and consistent processes are key factors in a successful safety program. For an agribusiness and food company, plant management used data to address the need for ergonomics capital. These numbers put ergonomics on the radar of the executive management team. Scoring jobs and tasks from low to high risk and providing before-and-after photos enabled the ergonomics team to “speak the same language” as management. This helped them secure funding to implement a consistent ergonomics process across the company’s 300 U.S.-based plants.  Increasing awareness. A large manufacturer of all-terrain vehicles found that demonstrating the value of fixing work areas, educating team members, and reducing injuries to employees was important in deploying a sustainable ergonomics process across the organization. The company prioritized ensuring that all employees return home safely at the end of each day and set a goal of zero occupational injuries. It began a large initiative to increase ergonomics awareness and train all employees in ergonomics principles. When employees learned about the importance and positive effects of ergonomics, they were eager to be part of the improvement process. Since the start of the project, the company has experienced  continuous improvement at all its locations and thousands of employees have been trained on ergonomics principles. The company’s health and safety supervisor reports good compliance across the board thanks to both management and employee investment in the effort.  RESEARCH DEMONSTRATES VALUE, CONSEQUENCES A vast amount of research shows a direct correlation between ergonomics and business performance, stock performance, improved productivity, improved employee health and retention, improved human capital, and more. The impact of ergonomics on these elements is tremendous. When ergonomics is done right and human performance is optimized, there are two primary positive outcomes: improved employee well-being and improved business performance. This is the value of ergonomics. When ergonomics is not done right or practiced at all, negative consequences can occur. The most recognizable of these is the presence of workplace musculoskeletal disorders, or MSDs, which are painful disorders of the muscles, nerves, tendons, ligaments, and spinal discs. MSDs affect all body areas, but the most common are the upper extremities and lower back. MSDs are the result of exposure to biomechanical risk factors such as forceful exertions, awkward postures, sustained exertions, high frequencies, and vibration.  Poor ergonomics can lead to substantial social and financial consequences, which, oddly enough, do not always convince business stakeholders of the value of ergonomics. In the United States, upper-extremity MSDs and low-back pain are the most prominent occupational injuries, accounting for 31 percent of all occupational injuries. According to OSHA’s “Safety Pays” program, the typical direct cost of an upper-extremity MSD ranges between $28,866 and $33,258, and the typical direct cost of a low-back-pain disorder ranges between $22,548 and $76,430. Evidence suggests that the leading cause of occupational injuries in the U.S. is forceful exertions or overexertion. Overexertion includes manual lifting, lowering, pushing, pulling, carrying, and throwing. In the U.S., overexertion injuries account for approximately 23 percent of all occupational injuries and cost about $13.79 billion annually. Forceful exertions leading to MSDs are considered a growing global problem. According to research, low-back pain is the sixth greatest global burden of disease, just behind HIV/AIDS in fifth place and just ahead of malaria in seventh.
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On the other hand, proper ergonomics design and intervention can improve employee well-being in several ways. Research has shown that proper ergonomics can reduce the number of MSDs by 51 to 63 percent, lower the incidence rate by 45 to 69 percent, and decrease workers’ compensation costs by 60 to 74 percent. Other studies have shown positive outcomes such as 65 to 79 percent reduction in lost workdays; 23 to 49 percent reduction in employee turnover; 35 percent decrease in first-aid cases; and 50 percent decrease in modified-duty cases. A 2014 study found that systematic ergonomic hazard identification and control implementation reduced injury risk by seven percent. KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE Traditionally, dependent stakeholders such as those in safety and human resources departments appreciate the value of ergonomics. They understand that it improves employee well-being. However, dominant stakeholders— including plant leadership; quality, operations, and manufacturing heads; boards of directors; and investors—tend to have limited awareness or understanding of the value of ergonomics. Dominant stakeholders often overlook and underappreciate that ergonomics can improve business performance by enhancing product quality, increasing manufacturing performance, and improving employee engagement. It can even result in better stock performance and corporate social responsibility. It’s important to “speak the same language” as management. Using their language, OEHS professionals must communicate the value of ergonomics. IMPACT ON BUSINESS PERFORMANCE One business performance enhancement that results from proper ergonomics design and intervention is efficient return on investment. Studies have shown that ergonomics interventions are associated with a cost-to-benefit ratio of 1:2.8 to 1:5.5 and an average payback period of 2.25 months. Companies that invest in a good ergonomics program will also benefit from higher product quality and reduced rates of product defects. For example, jobs and tasks with higher MSD risks have three times the number of quality errors and 6.5 times as many quality failures as those associated with lower MSD risk, and it costs 7.9 times as much to correct these errors. Proper ergonomics means less time spent correcting defects and lower costs to correct errors that do occur. Further research has found that proper ergonomics contributes to better manufacturing performance; manufacturing task times are reduced and facility productivity can be improved by 20 to 30 percent. Proper ergonomics design and intervention can also improve employee engagement. The ergonomic condition of a workplace reflects the dominant stakeholders’ respect for employees. To engage employees, business leaders must connect with them—preferably one-on-one—to establish a foundation of trust and respect. A workplace designed to meet workers’ needs demonstrates the employer’s commitment and encourages employees to be fully engaged. A recent study published by my company found that larger and global corporations perceive employee engagement to be the biggest value resulting from formalized ergonomics initiatives. Companies that invest in good ergonomics tend to better manage human capital, which includes the skills, knowledge, and abilities employees bring to their work (viewed in terms of their value or cost to the company). Management of occupational health and safety, including ergonomics, is part of human capital. Senior management teams and financial investors understand that investing in human capital improves financial performance. Companies can invest in human capital by providing ergonomics training to all employees, deploying a management system for ergonomics, measuring the system’s effectiveness, and publishing lost-time injuries. It’s also proven that companies that invest and build a culture of safety by focusing on employee well-being and workplace improvement yield greater value for their investors. On average, these companies outperform the general stock market by five percent annually. Data from the S&P Global Market Intelligence Group shows that proper human capital management and safety management can also have a positive impact on corporate credit ratings. A change in corporate credit rating (either positive or negative) has a significant impact on business performance and can alter stock price positively or negatively by 10 to 20 percent.
DO IT RIGHT Business leaders who truly understand the value that ergonomics brings to employees, business operations, the community, and clients are active in and committed to the process. This is the secret to implementing and sustaining an ergonomics process. This “secret” doesn’t apply to one industry. The automotive, food and beverage, and pharmaceutical industries, for example, are all operated by human beings who need to see and understand the impacts of ergonomics.  As with any improvement process or program, ergonomics must demonstrate tangible benefits for an organization to value and sustain it. The two primary values of ergonomics are improved employee well-being and improved business performance. Companies that focus on improving only one of these outcomes overlook and underexploit the value of ergonomics. When ergonomics is done right, companies can benefit from both outcomes.    BLAKE MCGOWAN, CPE, is a managing consultant for Humantech. He is also a past officer of the AIHA Ergonomics Committee. He can be reached via email. Send feedback to The Synergist.

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Communicating Value to Business Stakeholders

The Case for Ergonomics
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Disadvantages of being unacclimatized:
  • Readily show signs of heat stress when exposed to hot environments.
  • Difficulty replacing all of the water lost in sweat.
  • Failure to replace the water lost will slow or prevent acclimatization.
Benefits of acclimatization:
  • Increased sweating efficiency (earlier onset of sweating, greater sweat production, and reduced electrolyte loss in sweat).
  • Stabilization of the circulation.
  • Work is performed with lower core temperature and heart rate.
  • Increased skin blood flow at a given core temperature.
Acclimatization plan:
  • Gradually increase exposure time in hot environmental conditions over a period of 7 to 14 days.
  • For new workers, the schedule should be no more than 20% of the usual duration of work in the hot environment on day 1 and a no more than 20% increase on each additional day.
  • For workers who have had previous experience with the job, the acclimatization regimen should be no more than 50% of the usual duration of work in the hot environment on day 1, 60% on day 2, 80% on day 3, and 100% on day 4.
  • The time required for non–physically fit individuals to develop acclimatization is about 50% greater than for the physically fit.
Level of acclimatization:
  • Relative to the initial level of physical fitness and the total heat stress experienced by the individual.
Maintaining acclimatization:
  • Can be maintained for a few days of non-heat exposure.
  • Absence from work in the heat for a week or more results in a significant loss in the beneficial adaptations leading to an increase likelihood of acute dehydration, illness, or fatigue.
  • Can be regained in 2 to 3 days upon return to a hot job.
  • Appears to be better maintained by those who are physically fit.
  • Seasonal shifts in temperatures may result in difficulties.
  • Working in hot, humid environments provides adaptive benefits that also apply in hot, desert environments, and vice versa.
  • Air conditioning will not affect acclimatization.
Acclimatization in Workers