Human Engineering: Developing ergonomics programs for enhanced productivity and safety

May 1, 2000

Human Engineering

Developing ergonomics programs for enhanced productivity and safety

By Michelle Garetson

May 2000

Ergonomics and its application in the workplace has become an increasingly important issue for management and workers alike. Regardless of the industry, occupation, or business, it is important to continually evaluate current practices to determine if they are adequate in protecting employees from injury and to develop programs to enhance productivity and safety.

What is ergonomics?
Ergonomics, also known as human engineering, is an applied science that melds characteristics of the job or product with those of humans for safety and efficiency.

When there is a mismatch between the physical requirements of the job and the physical ability of the worker, work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs) can result. Workers whose jobs require repetitive motion, doing work in an awkward position, using a great deal of force to perform their jobs, repeated lifting of heavy objects, or whose jobs involve a combination of these risk factors are most likely to develop WMSDs.

Are WMSDs a serious problem ?
The most recent data available, from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) for 1997, reports that 626,000 U.S. workers experienced musculoskeletal disorders serious enough to require time away from work for recuperation in that year. Another significant influence of WMSDs on the economy is the fact that employers annually pay out, in direct workers' compensation costs, between $15 billion to $18 billion, or about one dollar of every three dollars in workers' compensation amounts. When indirect costs are added to this figure, the annual costs to employers are likely to reach $45 billion to $54 billion.

OSHA's Ergonomic Proposal
OSHA has developed a national ergonomics protection program that was published in the Federal Register in November 1999. Earlier this year, the agency held a number of public hearings around the country and a comment period followed to allow people who testified at those hearings to provide more information. OSHA is targeting the end of calendar year 2000 to issue the final ergonomics standard.

This proposed standard is a program standard, i.e., one that requires employers to establish a basic framework incorporating agreed-upon core elements, but gives employers the flexibility to outline workplace-specific details.

Setting up an ergonomic program
The first order of business would be to evaluate the types of jobs and tasks present in your operations to determine what changes in practices and equipment are needed. Some questions to consider involve the task as well as the workplace:

• Are workers exerting considerable physical effort to complete a motion?
• Are workers performing tasks that involve long reaches or many repetitions?
• Are working surfaces too high or too low? • Are hand and power tools right for the task and worker?
• Does the job involve vibrating working surfaces, machinery, or vehicles?
• Is the workplace lighting adequate?

Elements of the program
After evaluation, the following are program elements to consider that would be required by OSHA's proposed standard.

• Management leadership and employee participation
• Hazard information and reporting
• Job hazard analysis and control
• Training
• MSD/Medical management
• Recordkeeping
• Program evaluation.

A successful program should include provisions to reduce repeated motions, forceful hand exertions, prolonged bending or working above shoulder height, and to reduce vibration. Use equipment - not backs - for heavy or repetitive lifting and provide short breaks to allow muscles to recover.

One program does not fit all
While no one will ever be able to say that "X" number of repetitions or lifting "X" pounds will result in injury or that "Y" number of repetitions or "Y" pounds will definitely NOT result in injury, many employers have developed and implemented effective ergonomics programs and common sense solutions to take on causes of WMSDs in their workplaces. (Please see sidebar pg. 142)

Many times, WMSDs can be prevented by simple and inexpensive changes in the workplace through the following:

• Adjusting the height of working surfaces
• Varying tasks for workers
• Encouraging short rest breaks
• Using specially designed equipment or tools

Ergonomic Program Case Studies

(Source:, under Ergonomics - Technical Links) Management takes the ergonomic lead at PPG Industries
PPG Industries employs 31,000 workers, and manufactures glass, fiberglass, coatings, resins, paints and chemicals.

In 1987, PPG Industries also processed 2,500 workers' compensation claims, many of which were related to work-related musculoskeletal disorders.

The company developed a three-day training class held in Pittsburgh twice a year that was specifically geared for company supervisors and employees; however, suppliers and customers were encouraged to attend.

That training, coupled with the purchase of equipment such as pneumatically driven machines for heavy lifting, has helped drive PPG's workers' compensation costs down dramatically. In 1987, the company experienced 2,500 such claims, compared to approximately 1,000 nine years later.

3M institutes ergonomic program, reduces injuries
A 1990 corporate analysis of Minnesota-based 3M's injury and illness data showed that 35 percent of all OSHA-recordable cases were related to work-related musculoskeletal disorders, and 53 percent of all lost-time cases were related to such disorders.

3M employs 37,000 workers and manufactures 65,000 products, ranging from adhesives to heart-lung machines.

An informal analysis showed that manufacturing and offices accounted for most of the WMSDs. Implementing ergonomics programs in several demonstration plants resulted in a decrease in ergonomic-related cases and 3M implemented a company-wide program in 1991. Over the next five years, 3M realized a 22 percent decrease in recordable cases, and saw a 58 percent decrease in lost-time cases.

Follow-up surveys of individuals experiencing WMSDs showed that approximately 90 percent of employees had improved or completely resolved symptoms.

Easy Ergonomics - The Quick Fix
Often the problems that result in work-related musculoskeletal disorders can be fixed easily and quickly with very little expense. For that reason, OSHA's ergonomics program proposal includes a "Quick Fix" option. The proposal calls for job-based rather than facility-wide ergonomics programs. Therefore, if an employer can fix the one job that has resulted in an injury promptly and effectively, there is no need to take any further action. Quick Fix is for problem jobs that can be fixed in 90 days and double-checked to see that the fix works in the following 30 days. Thus, the whole process must take no longer than 120 days.

The basic obligation for the employer is to provide training to employees so they know about MSD hazards and your ergonomics program, as well as the procedures for eliminating or materially reducing the hazards. Employers must provide training initially, periodically as needed (e.g., when new hazards are identified in a problem job or changes are made to a problem job that may increase exposure to MSD hazards), and at least every 3 years at no cost to employees.

Those employees who will require training are those who perform jobs identified as problem jobs. The supervisors of those employees will also require training as will the persons involved in setting up and managing the ergonomics program, except for any outside consultant you may use.

Training for employees needs to cover:

• How to recognize MSD signs and symptoms
• How to report MSD signs and symptoms
• MSD hazards in their jobs and the measures they must follow to protect themselves from exposure to MSD hazards
• Job-specific controls implemented in their jobs
• The ergonomics program and their role in it

Those responsible for the initiation and management of the ergonomics program need to know:

• How to set up and manage an ergonomics program;
• How to identify and analyze MSD hazards and measures to eliminate or materially reduce the hazards
• How to evaluate the effectiveness of ergonomics programs and controls.

With any program or new practice, there are costs involved. One of the more sticky points brought out by opponents to the OSHA proposal is the item regarding personal protective equipment. The proposal states, "Personal protective equipment (PPE) may be used to supplement engineering, work practice and administrative controls, but may only be used alone where other controls are not feasible. Where PPE is used, you must provide it at 'no cost to employees.' NOTE: Back belts/braces and wrist braces/splints are not considered PPE for the purposes of this standard."

The fear here lies within the phrase "Where PPE is used, you must provide it at no cost to employees." However, OSHA defers the determination for the necessity for PPE to the employer. And, as previously mentioned, the proposal calls for job-based, rather than facility-wide, ergonomics programs.

Employers must weigh for themselves whether the investment in a program will offset the costs associated with workers' compensation claims and lost revenue due to injured employees.

In the practice, ergonomics is fitting the job to the worker. Management and employees must work together to bring about the right environment in an effort to reduce workplace injuries and increase efficiency and productivity.