Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Approaching Safety and Ergonomics Strategically

Article on the Occupational Hazards website 20 December 2005 by Robert Pater

Strategy entails both vision and action. Part of this is looking at what are already doing and what works and what does not. Which interventions are working and which are in the domain of diminishing returns? Which organizational forces currently block improvements and which are supporters? What are the current leadership strengths and limitations? But you need to go beyond what's been previously done if you want to see different results.

Keep in mind that how you initially look at a problem can funnel you into a limited set of solutions. For example, defining ergonomics as making work fit the worker limits intervention to engineering the environment to fix selected problems. But taking ergonomics literally means the science (-nomics) of work (from the Greek word 'ergon"), giving a more "strategic" definition as: improving the fit between people and their work (to improve safety, productivity and morale). This paradigm opens up three different approaches:

* Bringing work "closer" to people (through design, redesign, positioning, etc.);
* Bringing people "closer" to their work (through improving mental skills of attention control, risk assessment, judgment, team focus, etc., and physical skills of improved coordination, leverage, balance, flexibility, range of motion and more); and
* Bringing work closer to people as well as people closer to their work.

This last approach is most preferred. For example, it is more efficient, whenever possible, to take the stuck lid off a jar by twisting the bottom clockwise and the lid counterclockwise (rather than just holding the bottom stationery while working on the top).

There are limitations beyond initial costs. Ergonomics improvement can deteriorate into safety hazards (think of worn-down nonskid mats with curling-up edges); and might require workers to change. (in one place introducing recoilless rivet guns actually exacerbated those hand and arm injuries they was purchased to prevent - until riveters were trained how to gauge the different kinesthetic feel of setting the rivet with the new tool).

A strategic human factors approach relies on effective communication and training to motivate use of and to transfer new skills; requires a work force able to receive communication (are there language or other blockages?); necessitates time away from job tasks for training and reinforcement; can be logistically challenging for multiple sites (especially where facilities have few employees); and is not automatically in place for new hires. But it has the advantages of

* Improving situations where engineering solutions have been exhausted in difficult-to-control environments;
* Is portable to wherever people are - in multiple locations and environments, at work and at home; and
* Can boost involvement and morale while heightening worker abilities that transfer to other needed arenas.

Andy Brazier

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