Return on Investment (ROI) is the subject of many discussions about ergonomics, and rightfully so. Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are an expensive and preventable workplace injury, with total costs averaging nearly $30,000 per case according to data from OSHA. Redesigning work areas to match human capabilities not only reduces injury costs, but it can improve job performance and enhance quality. The cost of many ergonomics improvements can be justified solely on the productivity and quality benefits associated with the change. This results in the ability to implement a greater number of ergonomics improvements. Ergonomics team members can benefit from defining the ROI of their improvements and communicating it effectively.
However, consider the following limitations when initiating the discussion.
Too much focus on ROI for safety can undermine safety as a core value. It raises the question of whether profits are more important than the safety of people. Are we making the workplace safer only when it is more profitable to be safer?
Reliance on ROI can place different values on people based on their socioeconomic status and country of origin. It is more expensive if a higher-paid worker is injured than a lower-paid one. It is more expensive if a worker in a first-world economy is injured than in second- and third-world ones. The intrinsic value of protecting the well-being of your employees should be equal for all employees, regardless of race, gender, education, or national origin.
An over-emphasis on ROI can undermine the value of a small change. Industry doesn’t insist on documenting ROI for processes that it values. For example, underlying the Kaizen approach is the fundamental belief that many small changes add up to a big one. The emphasis should be on empowering people to make small changes, rather than justifying each change that is made. It’s important to create a culture that values continuous improvement processes. This isn’t suggesting a blank check for ergonomics improvements, just as Kaizen isn’t a blank check for improvements. What it is suggesting is that ergonomics is often the accumulation of many small improvements and that too much focus on the ROI of these small improvements can undermine a culture of empowering people to identify and make these changes.
Learning to effectively use ROI calculations is a valuable asset for ergonomics teams. It will help them obtain funding for improvements and will challenge the team to develop more cost-effective solutions. However, ROI should not be the “rasion d’etre” for the ergonomics process. It is important to remind leadership on a regular basis that some improvements are worth implementing solely because they are the right thing to do.