Ergonomic related injuries can be frustrating and costly. Such injuries can run the gamut from strains and sprains of many parts of the body to cumulative trauma injuries associated with vibration, overexertion, position and other factors. Perhaps this is why there has been pressure - in many states as well as on a Federal level - to enact standards to cope with these injuries. True, the proposed OSHA Ergonomic Standard was recently set aside, but these injuries still remain.
We have heard supervisors wryly suggest that carpal tunnel syndrome is a "contagious disease." Managers complain that no one is actually using those expensive scissor lifts recommended by the ergonomics consultant. And bargaining units declare that injuries are solely management's responsibility - due to poor design and inadequate tooling and insufficient cash infusions.
What is going on?
Ergonomics is often billed as a quick fix for organizational cumulative trauma pains. Unfortunately, these interventions too often fizzle or detonate. Why won't people do "what's good for them?" How can we apply scientific knowledge that takes in the real world? Can we cut cumulative trauma injuries on the job in a cost-effective manner?
The answer begins and ends with people. Experience has shown a wide range of organizations can cut their incidence of cumulative trauma disorders while simultaneously boosting personal responsibility.
Personal control and responsibility - on the parts of both employees and managers - is a major key to successful ergonomic implementation.
More than Equipment Design
We define ergonomics as improving the fit between people and their tasks. There are two ways this fit may be improved: 1. Bring the tasks closer to the worker and 2. Help people better adapt to their jobs. Organizational controls underpin this meshing process.
By default, ergonomics is commonly equated with re-designing tools, equipment and workstations to eliminate causes of cumulative trauma problems (Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, low back pain, etc). Unfortunately, a narrow focus on environmental design can lead managers and staff in search of the ergonomic holy grail - the perfect chair or the tool with the ideal grip. All too soon, they discover that environmental improvements by themselves can't overcome the many causes of CTDs.
For example, workers may be operating in environments that are difficult or costly to control: maintenance personnel often work in other departments' turf, some function with equipment that might be prohibitively expensive to redesign, still others work in the field. And it's important to remember that employees may also accumulate trauma exposures off the job - these are difficult to engineer out.
Companies that realize ergonomic gains ally an artful mix of environmental, human and organizational factors. This means systematically improving the working environment (adjustable workstations, suspending weight of heavy tools), developing employee capabilities (attention control, judgment, skills, work methods, motivation), and refining organizational procedures (job design, supervision, reinforcement) as part of every ergonomic intervention.
Certainly, controlling environmental stressors is vital; working with poorly designed workstations or tools can endanger workers even over a relatively short time. But this is not enough. In the real and "messy" world of work, ignoring human or organizational factors can unplug an otherwise worthy ergonomics effort. In our experience, human and organizational factors are most overlooked - perhaps because they seem less tangible and thereby less easily controlled.