Engineering Ergonomics

Walt RostykusMost safety professionals believe that occupational ergonomics is a safety discipline because organizations have traditionally looked to them to address “ergonomic issues.”  Many safety professionals, however, have limited or no formal education or experience in ergonomics, so they are uncomfortable managing something they don’t know.   I pose to you a different paradigm — that occupational ergonomics is an engineering discipline.

A current trend is to hold engineers and operations accountable for the quality of the workplace and tools they put in place.  One element of measuring quality is how well the workplace fits people, the lack of MSD risk factors and the efficiency of the process (i.e. Lean).

In a recent benchmarking study of 13 companies with effective ergonomic processes, we found that:

  • 31 percent  measure the level of MSD risks and the reduction in risk level as a result of workplace change (This is a leading measure of results.)
  • 62 percent utilize engineering or operations people (not safety) to lead their ergonomics process
  • 46 percent hold engineers responsibile for making workplace improvements in exisiting workplaces and process to reduce MSD risks (i.e. engineering controls)
    • 77 percent provide engineers with Ergonomic Design Criteria to assist with engineering controls
    • 77 percent of participants created a new equipment review process for ergonomics.  Typically this is tied to the existing Phase Gate Review or New Equipment Review Process.
    • 54 percent hold engineering responsible for MSD risk factors

These are indicators of a paradigm shift of how companies manage workplace ergonomics. But the transition still has its challenges:

  • Transitioning from safety to engineering is not easy.  Two of the benchmarking companies stated they are struggling to get engineering to take on a “new responsibility.”
  • 85 percent of participants indicate the new equipment review and approval process need to be improved.  Reasons include:
    • It is not formal
    • Not always used by engineers
    • Not effective
    • Not followed
    • Engineers are not held accountable

So where does your organization stand?

  • Who is ultimately accountable for ensuring your workplace and tools are designed to best fit people and reduce exposure to MSD risk factors?
  • Is it working?  How do you know?
  • Are you best leveraging your engineering resources?
  • If you could change your current approach to managing workplace ergonomics, what would you do?

We look forward to hearing from NAEM members on what works for them.

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. Dean Clevett

    September 9, 2010

    At our plant, ergonomics is one of the considerations as part of our Management Of Change (MOC) process. Both Engineering and EHS sign off on all MOC’s. There are many areas where Engineering and EHS overlap. Both departments need to cooperate to ensure that nothing falls between the cracks. As a Professional Engineer, I encourage organizations to include at least one Professional Engineer on their engineering staff, even if they are covered by the Industrial Exemption (IE). This helps ensure that all the relevant engineering codes, standards and regulations are reviewed, prior to approving changes. If both EHS and Engineering are concerned about ergonomics (as well as process safety, etc), then it’s less likely that something will fall between the cracks.

  2. Mark Williams

    September 10, 2010

    Absolutely! Cooperation between EHS and Engineering is essential. But what is missing within both these groups? The sound knowledge base of Anatomy and Physiology to understand what impact their design is going to have on the wide variety of workers. A Kinesiologist (Kinesiology – the study of human movement) has the anatomy, physiology and biomechanics training to understand design impacts. This is where I suggest consulting an Ergonomist with a Kinesiology background to ensure any new design or change is going to be effective.

  3. Dean Clevett

    September 10, 2010

    Mark. You’re correct. We’ve brought in “occupational kinesiologists” or ergonomists to do assessments and propose solutions. There isn’t enough demand for us to have one on staff, so it’s something that we utilize consultants for.

    That’s one of the reasons that I recommend having Professional Engineers on staff even if they’re not statute required. A Professional Engineer is bound by both ethical and legal requirements to not operate outside their area of expertise. The same requirement does not apply in most jurisdictions, to non-licenced engineers.

  4. Glen Smith

    September 15, 2010

    Maybe the thing missing from the equation was a suitably qualified ergonomist? Each area of ergonomics has its areas of expertise so your ergonomist may have a kinesiology background or an engineering background or a psych background etc. Without the appropriatte person with the relevant experience you may well miss the mark.

    As guidelines, standards, codes etc do not necessarily make the task fit the person. This is the gap the EHS/OHS and engineering leave which is why there is a profession called ergonmics. Certainly I have found that having an anatomy and physiology background helps in some areas, so has having a background in instrument repair so it is about finding relvevant experience for making the task fit the person.

    The biggest value add possibly is in having a collaberative team that can provide support to develop an holisitic perspective of the task so that as many relevant issues e.g. viable engineering, human factors, cost effective can be addressed appropriately.

  5. Hollyw

    September 15, 2010

    I work at home and I spend a long time on the computer and therefore I soon found out how important workplace ergonomics are. I have a comfortable yet supportive chair as well as multi screen support and I take regular breaks to stretch my legs and move around… Offices and those who run them really should start to take the whole comfort = happy staff member equation into the fore front of their workplace…

  6. Glen Smith

    September 15, 2010

    Perhaps it is worth clarifying a couple of points from the original statement. Do you mean,
    1. an engineer should perform the ergonomic tasks e.g. assessment etc
    2. or that safety professionals are uncomfortable working with ergonomists as the safety professional has a limit education in ergonomics

    If I tie in some of the points in this first paragraph you appear to be saying that safety professionals believe occupational ergonomics is a safety discipline even though as you later in the paragraph state “many safety professionals have limited or no formal education or experience in ergonomics”.

    I was also wondering on how you decided on the above information?

    Cheers Glen

  7. Hi,
    Nice post. Thanks for sharing so useful information Engineering ergonomics. Keep writing this.

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