Scott Lawson, president, Scott Lawson Group Limited, Concord, N.H., has a rough definition of ergonomic problems: It’s people making bad decisions about how to do their jobs properly and safely—therefore, they hurt themselves. He’s been in the health and safety business for more than 30 years and has built a company that started on his kitchen table and has grown to a nationally respected group of 60 people.

“We use an 80/20 rule,” says Lawson. “We say that 80% of the accidents that happen on the job are the result of unsafe work practices and unsafe acts; 20% are the result of unsafe conditions.”

So, while a 55-gallon drum on the edge of a pallet might be an unsafe condition, the person pushing it off the pallet onto his foot is committing an unsafe work practice.

Often, ergonomics and safety are spoken of in the same breath. The two do go together; however, they differ in one important element. Most ergonomic injuries are self inflicted. It’s the result of a lack of common sense. And, common sense can be defined as doing what makes sense. If a manager is looking for a solution to an unsafe work practice, he should start at the source—with the people doing the job.

It’s About Education
Preventing injuries is often a matter of changing behavior patterns, and that’s not the easiest thing to do. “In small- and medium- size companies,” says Lawson, “the job of educating the workforce falls to some mid-level manager who might also be responsible for quality, production and many other things. Guess which takes precedent?”

Also, safe behavior is tough to quantify. Managers know what poor quality looks like. Poor safety is more often defined by an injury, and then it’s too late. “When it comes to evaluating good and bad safety behavior,” he adds, “there’s a huge gap in the manager’s knowledge of how to do it.”

While there are many reasons for this knowledge gap, Lawson thinks a major reason is that smaller companies lack the resources—human and financial— to create and instill safe work practices.

Too often, a new employee learns how to do a job, safe or otherwise, from another employee. And, often, the person with the least amount of safety knowledge is the one who steps forward to teach the new guy the ropes.

The way to break this cycle, says Lawson, is for the manager to make a conscious decision to control employees and make sure they follow safe work procedures. “While that employee is on company time, you own them,” he says. “If he came to work drunk, he’d be fired. If he does something that’s going to hurt himself and cost the company money, like not wear safety glasses, he has to know he’s liable, as well.”

Lawson also has strong opinions about many safety training programs. “The goal of the person sitting in the training program [He notes that training should be reserved for dogs and monkeys. People should be educated.] is to be able to demonstrate competency in the material they’ve just been exposed to. The goal is not necessarily learning.”

Rather than make this training session a requirement, companies should view it as an opportunity to make employees smarter. The 15-minute canned video the employee saw 12 years ago—and didn’t learn from—is equally as onerous this time around. Turn every training obligation into an opportunity, says Lawson.

Conventional education in business goes something like this: People are taught what to do then wait for someone to yell at them if they’re doing it wrong. After that, they adjust their behavior to the new command. If the boss doesn’t say anything, there’s an assumption the job is being done properly.

“Many safety programs, and whole businesses, are run from a tactical rather than strategic basis,” says Lawson. “Everyone runs around waiting for something to happen. And, when it does, some response is put into place. You have to control your future so there are no surprises.”

Taking the Long View
Do you have a program to promote safe work practices? And a committee to oversee the program? If yours is a small- to medium-size firm, often, the people on this committee are on other committees, as well. And, when it’s time for the safety committee to meet, the topic quickly shifts to quality or production or any other topic.

Maybe your company has what Lawson describes as a find-and-fix safety program. “A committee heads out onto the shop floor with an OSHA audit list, looking for safety hazards,” explains Lawson. “When they find one, they write up a work order, the maintenance guy shows up, and the hazard is eliminated.”

It’s eliminated until the next day because the person who created the hazard—removed the machine guard or spilled the oil—has learned nothing in the process. This scenario repeats itself until the committee is discouraged and quits writing up work orders for the same problem week after week.

The other end of this spectrum is the company with a solid safety program. How do you keep the employees motivated? Lawson says you keep it fresh and exciting by taking safety lessons and knowledge of human capabilities out of the workplace. Get the folks at home and in the community involved.

“We’ve seen companies do things like have open houses and invite school kids to draw pictures of what they see in the plant,” he says, “or sponsor health fairs, give away smoke detectors. Those kinds of events keep the employees thinking about safety or the limitations of the human body off the job.”

Where’s the best place to start a safe workplace program? At the source, says Lawson. “Safety and safe work practices are people programs, not technology programs. The best ideas come from the people doing the job, dealing with ergonomic problems on a daily basis.”

Ask the person doing the job what tools he needs to do it safely. The solution employees come up with might be the purchase of a new piece of equipment. Employees should be taught to look for the best body-neutral position for doing their own job and the jobs of fellow workers. Common sense is doing what makes sense, says Lawson.

What Other Experts Say
Speaking recently to a room filled with material handling executives, Jennifer Karlin, PhD, and Carter Kerk, PhD, both instructors at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, explained how the human is the central element of the workplace system. How the proper application of humans and equipment can be the basis of a lean manufacturing system was the primary theme of their presentation.

“In the workplace environment,” says Kerk, “it’s the human that interfaces with all the elements: the machines, raw material, tools and workstations.” He defined ergonomics as fitting the task to the person. “Ergonomics relates human capabilities and limitations to the design of products, systems and environments,” says Kerk.

Input from recent e

Material handling assist devices bring objects into the power zone.

rgonomics forums has demonstrated to OSHA that there are a wide variety of opinions on how that agency should define an ergonomic injury.

The definition adopted by OSHA depends on the context. Ergonomic injuries are often described by the term “musculoskeletal disorders” or MSDs. This is the term that refers collectively to a group of injuries and illnesses that affect the musculoskeletal system; there is no single diagnosis for MSDs. As OSHA develops guidance material for specific industries, the agency may narrow its definition as appropriate to address the specific workplace hazards covered.

According to OSHA, injuries and illnesses related to MSDs have consistently declined over the last 10 years, even though there has not been a standard addressing them. Guidelines, such as OSHA’s Meatpacking Guidelines, and voluntary industry efforts have been successful in reducing the injury and illness rates for these disorders. For example, in a seven-year period, on a national basis, rates for carpal tunnel injuries with days away from work have gone down by 39%. Rates for strains and sprains with days away from work have also gone down by 39%, and rates for back injuries with days away from work have gone down by 45%.

OSHA expects that industry-or-task-specific guidelines will further reduce injuries and illnesses as they are completed and implemented. OSHA’s VPP (Voluntary Protection Program) participants, who have implemented safety and health programs, have injury and illness rates 53% below the average for their respective SIC codes.

More often, when people talk of ergonomic injuries, they’re using an improper term, says Kerk. It’s really about MSDs. There’s more to it than just cumulative trauma disorders, such as carpel tunnel syndrome or back injuries. Cumulative trauma disorders can be any injury related to the musculoskeletal and nervous systems that build up over time. Generally, they are related to a complex set of risk factors that include not only things that happen on the job, but also non-occupational impacts in the home, personal problems and even psychosocial events.

Eliminating risk factors such as force, repetition, improper posture, temperature changes and vibration can go a long way in ridding the workplace of cumulative trauma disorders, says Kerk.

Karlin explained to the audience how material handling can be an enabler of effective lean and ergonomic systems.

“The waste of unnecessary motion is particularly related to ergonomics,” says Karlin. “Excess motion, such as bending or twisting, can become health issues. The way to resolve these is to deal with them as quickly as they are recognized.”

Kerk and Karlin, along with graduate student, Jon Walder, also from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, have written a white paper, "Integrated Lean Thinking & Ergonomics," which is available for download from the Ergonomic Assist Systems and Equipment (EASE) product council of MHIA, www.EASEcouncil.org.

In that paper, they note many of the occupational risk factors, especially the physical risk factors (high forces, awkward postures, excessive repetition and vibration), can be reduced or eliminated altogether by adhering to proper workplace design principles and appropriate use of assist devices.

The power zone is the lifting region that is considered optimal by ergonomists. This area extends from approximately standing elbow height to standing knuckle height and as close to the body as possible. As an example, for safe work-practice compliance, check the location of the third knuckle on each hand during the exertion with relation to the zone. Is that knuckle in or out of that zone? The power zone optimizes worker strength and durability with the most comfort by providing the arms and back with maximum leverage. Often, workplace lifting and lowering occurs in locations that are out of the power zone. The advantage of material handling assist devices is to bring objects into the power zone at critical points during the work task. By bringing material, especially heavy loads, into the power zone, material handling assist devices improve ergonomics and decrease the risk of MSDs.

Where to Start

Any preparation for an ergonomics program in material handling should begin with the plethora of material available at the Ergonomic Assist Systems and Equipment (EASE) product council of MHIA, www.EASEcouncil.org. This literature gives you a picture of what to look for and what questions to ask.

The mission of the EASE council is to promote the benefits of ergonomic assist systems and equipment, together with the advantages derived from, and the considerations for, the use of this equipment in the workplace. It is also the mission of the council to promote the general safety and health aspects of work environments for people with, or in the vicinity of, mechanical equipment. The council disseminates and maintains guidelines and standards, case studies and technical papers, all available for sale or for free download.

The council’s "Ergonomic Guidelines for Manual Material Handling" is particularly helpful. This free, fullcolor downloadable booklet was developed by EASE in partnership with national safety and health organizations. The booklet helps all companies, particularly small- to mid-sized companies, recognize high-risk manual material handling work tasks and choose effective options for reducing their physical demands, including:

  • Eliminating lifting from the floor and using simple transport devices like carts or dollies;
  • Using lift-assist devices like scissors lift tables or load levelers;
  • Using more sophisticated equipment, such as powered stackers, hoists, cranes, or vacuum assist devices;
  • Guiding choice of equipment by analyzing and redesigning workstations and workflow.

Jim Galante, chairman of the council and director of product and market development for Southworth International Group Inc., Portland, Maine, says good ergonomics, like other safety programs, starts with a manager’s observation and common sense—a commodity that is not all that common under the pressure of hurry-up manufacturing.

Here’s Galante’s list of what to watch for:

  • Workers needing to squat, reach and stretch to gain access to work;
  • Large work pieces that require operation on more than one surface;
  • Any repetitious assembly tasks;
  • Workstations with stepstools or extension arms for tools;
  • Equipment with access or adjustment located near the floor;
  • Heavy work pieces that must be moved or positioned;
  • Production machines that require high-volume input or output;
  • Workstations modified by employees (without authorization) to make work easier;
  • Material that shouldn’t be touched by hand (hot, cold, food, etc.).

Another excellent source of information is the Web site of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, www.osha.gov, and its many publications.

Additionally, the Department of Health and Human Services, National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), www.cdc.gov/niosh, is a good source for information specific to your industry.