Taking a Systems Approach to Ergonomics

Walt Rostykus

Walt Rostykus

Historically, the responsibility for managing and improving ergonomics in the workplace lies with the Safety Department.  Over the next several blog posts, I’ll question and test this and other paradigms about occupational ergonomics.   Why?  Because the application of ergonomic  principles not only benefits  safety, but can also improve productivity and quality.  When applied and managed effectively, ergonomics can help you  (the EHS manager) demonstrate value and affect the bottom line of your organization.

Google the word “ergonomics” and you’ll find a wide (and liberal) use of the term.  It’s used to promote stretching and exercise (i.e. wellness);  to sell office chairs, cars, hand tools and dog dishes;  and to describe various types of injuries.  The best definition I’ve found for Occupational Ergonomics is the following one by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health:

“The science of fitting workplace conditions and job demands to the capabilities of the working population.  Ergonomics is an approach or solution to deal with a number of problems – among them are work-related musculoskeletal disorders.”


I have observed that the greatest challenge organizations have with “doing ergonomics” is maintaining focus and ownership, and sustaining the application over time.  In other words, the system they use to manage the application of ergonomics in day-to-day operations.  W. Edwards Demming  once said, “If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you are doing.”

Managing ergonomics as a process is not a foreign concept.  Quality is typically managed as a continuous improvement process following the Shewart Cycle of Plan-Do-Check-Act or PDCA.  (Note that Demming used the Shewart Cycle as a foundation of his work).   Environmental Management Systems (ISO 14001) and Safety Management Systems (OHSAS 18001, ANSI Z10) are modeled after the PDCA model.  OSHA VPP is not a process, but does state that a system needs to be in place to manage safety.

I challenge you to map out your workplace ergonomics not as a program (the traditional approach) but as a process, based on continuous improvement: Take a blank sheet of paper and draw a “Start” box at the top and an “End” box at the bottom.  Now map out the steps, decisions, documents and tools you need to get there.  Is it complete?  Are there some holes?  Is it really a process?

In a recent benchmarking study we conducted with 13 leading companies, we found that all had aligned their ergonomic program elements with a continuous improvement process that was familiar to the organization.  A recorded summary of the benchmarking study is available on line (Click here).

  • How do you manage ergonomics?  As a program, a process, or other means?
  • Does it work?  Are you getting the results you need?  Is it a sustainable process/program, or require repeated efforts to revive?

I am interested in hearing your experience and lessons on this.


About Walt Rostykus

Walt Rostykus is a vice president with Humantech Inc., a consulting firm that combines the science of ergonomics with the company’s unique 30-Inch View® to deliver practical solutions that impact safety, quality, and productivity.

View all post by Walt Rostykus »

  1. Fred Rubel

    July 14, 2010


    Within the EHS function, when performing Job Safety Analyses, re-engineering to reduce the chances of physical injury from strain was a standard consideration for hazard reduction. It was apparent that this could lead to productivity benefits as well. I agree.

  2. Chelsea A.

    July 29, 2010

    At my work, we all have ergonomic office chairs and ergonomic work stations set up to meet our specific needs, however, I know many people in other companies that do not have an ergonomic program in place. Perhaps some companies are not aware of this, but it seems more and more are implementing such a policy.

  3. Judi Fox

    July 30, 2010


    This is a great summary. I enjoyed learning the statement
    “If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you are doing.”

    In my experience companies have great intentions and sincere efforts to prevent ergonomics issues; however, I sometimes notice that there needs to be a stronger check / feedback loop in the process.

    Ergonomics can be an “invisible” issue when an employee notices that their workstation causes them slight wrist pain or other minimal pains. I have known employees to not mention these slight pains because they aren’t sure they will be taken seriously or they don’t want to “complain”. But that is when the injury can be prevented from getting worse and can be corrected with better ergonomics.

    That is why I strongly agree with your statement to have a process and not just a program. Within a process there needs to be clearly communicated path, which takes slight discomfort as an opportunity to prevent it from developing into a more serious ergonomic injury down the road.

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