Five Tips for Implementing Better Ergonomics Controls
Preventing musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) is the primary reason most organizations have an ergonomics program in place. A critical element for program success is identifying and implementing effective controls. Effective controls modify or eliminate the exposure to a risk factor. Unfortunately, this is precisely the step in the process where many ergonomics teams struggle. Here are five impactful things you can do to improve the effectiveness of your ergonomics controls.
1. Consider your risk assessment tool. Historically, ergonomics efforts have usually relied on observational risk assessment methods to evaluate MSD risks. Differing levels of familiarity and expertise in performing these assessment techniques introduce significant variability in measurements and other assessment data. As a result, assessment scores are often inaccurate and unreliable.
How significant is this variability? A 2017 study published in Human Factors, the journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, analyzed 442 risk assessments of actual jobs carried out by 290 professionals from 20 countries to determine the reliability and accuracy of assessment data. The results showed that approximately 30 percent of the assessments performed using observational methods had errors, generally understating the level of MSD risk.
The study concluded that greater effort is needed to ensure that assessors possess better knowledge of the techniques used to assess MSD risks. Our first reaction to this conclusion might be that assessors require additional training and higher levels of expertise to ensure assessment accuracy. However, ergonomics expertise can be supplemented with technology to improve the accuracy of MSD risk assessment. The right technology automates key elements of the risk assessment process, enabling nonexperts to obtain accurate MSD risk assessment results with minimal training.
Four key risk factors are often evaluated to determine MSD risk: force, posture, duration, and frequency. Accurate information about the magnitude of exposure to each risk factor is a fundamental requirement for your risk assessment process. A good tool will also provide sufficient detail about the risk exposure to guide your improvement efforts. Risk assessment isn’t just about decimal point differences in accurately predicting incidents; it’s also about understanding the underlying factors contributing to the risk in sufficient detail to implement effective changes. The best risk assessment tool, from a practitioner’s standpoint, is determined not solely by predictive validity, but also by providing the information necessary to select the best improvements. Your risk assessment tool should be able to direct you in identifying meaningful causes and the workplace changes necessary to address exposure to these causes.
2. Use employee input effectively. If you don’t listen to the people doing the job, your ergonomics efforts won’t be successful. However, you can improve your results by asking the right questions at the right time in the process. When you’re conducting a risk assessment, ask questions that will help you understand the job better. For instance:
• “What is the hardest part of this job?” Sometimes it can help break down communication barriers by phrasing the question something like, “You make this job look easy. If I were to start doing this job, what might surprise me with how hard it is to do?”
• “Are some parts harder or easier to complete?” Always follow up by either observing these aspects of the work or by having the person explain why they are easier or harder. If some parts are substantially harder, a risk assessment of those cases is necessary to accurately understand the overall risk in the job.
• “What happens when . . .?” For example, parts aren’t stocked, a part sticks, you have to change fixtures, and so on.
• “Are there tasks I didn’t see during my assessment?”
The reason behind asking the questions is at least as important as the content of the questions. We ask the people who do the job every day because they are experts on what the job involves. We are there to learn from them, not just to fill out boxes on a form.
Once you understand the magnitude of exposure to each risk factor, it’s time to ask questions about the causes of those risks and solicit ideas for addressing them. Our goal is to learn about what has been tried in the past and why it didn’t work or why it isn’t being done now. Ask about any ideas workers might have to address specific issues.
3. Embrace root cause analysis. Using a root cause analysis is an effective process that can reveal the underlying cause of an awkward movement—for example, bending forward with the back—and ultimately produce ideas for improvement or for directly reducing the exposure risks. You don’t have to wait for an injury to occur to utilize root-cause analysis tools.
The best way to reduce risk exposure is to understand the link between the risk that is present in the job and the tasks required to complete the job. This requires a risk assessment tool that can provide sufficient detail in describing the risks. In ergonomics, we know that these risks revolve around the working postures, the forces applied in the tasks, the amount of time a person is exposed to these risks, and how often the person doing the job repeats these postures. The degree to which your risk assessment tool allows you to quantify these elements will determine how effectively you can complete a root cause analysis.
An effective root cause analysis requires sufficient detail in the analysis phase. The “best” risk assessment tool isn’t just the one with the highest degree of accuracy in predicting incidents, but rather the tool that helps users identify specific causes and reduce the exposure to those causes. An effective root cause analysis requires detail on the potential causes. Your root cause analysis should start with the factors identified as being the most likely contributors to overall job risk. When you can focus on the most important causes, you are able to identify more effective controls.
4. Embrace the hierarchy of controls. Ergonomics uses the same hierarchy of controls approach as other areas of health and safety, although some areas are less applicable or have reduced effectiveness:
• The best way to control an MSD risk exposure is to eliminate the source of that risk. Installing an automated palletizer to replace manually stacking boxes eliminates the risk of palletizing.
• Substitution isn’t as commonly used in ergonomics as in other areas of health and safety.
• Engineering controls make changes to the work that will reduce the magnitude of the risk exposure, such as reducing the force or improving the posture. These include changes to the product design, work process or flow, workstation, tools, parts presentation, or dunnage.
• Administrative controls, such as job rotation, relief workers, or additional break time, are considerably less effective for MSDs, particularly when excessive force is one of the risk factors. These approaches should be used sparingly and only temporarily until a more effective, permanent solution can be provided.
• Remember that PPE, such as knee pads or anti-vibration gloves, offers minimal benefits for reducing MSDs. For instance, the efficacy of anti-vibration gloves remains heavily debated, with mixed results in published studies. Based on the conflicting study results, there is a legitimate concern that use of these gloves could result in a false sense of security and situations where effective controls are ignored.
5. Conduct and track follow-up assessments. The best short-term way to verify that you’re implementing effective control measures is to complete “before” and “after” risk assessments.
The follow-up (after) risk assessment should show that the controls implemented reduced the risk exposure for people doing the job. Without this valuable step, you won’t know how effective your efforts are. Conversely, when you include this step, it’s easier to deploy effective controls throughout the organization. Instead of solving the same problem many times, you can deploy an effective solution across multiple occurrences.
Following a consistent job improvement process will result in reducing MSDs. Start with an accurate, easy-to-use MSD risk assessment tool that can direct your intervention efforts, understand the causes of the risks identified, select controls that eliminate or reduce occurrence of the risk, and complete follow-up assessments to verify the risk reduction.
RICK BARKER, CPE, CSP, is principal solutions strategist for ergonomics at VelocityEHS.
Send feedback to The Synergist.