Ergonomics done right.®
September 26th, 2008

A Prescription for Carpal Tunnel Vision: Thoughts on an Ergonomics Standard

The topic of regulations to mandate workplace ergonomics is back in the news again, most recently in the form of an announcement of a draft state standard introduced in Michigan, and in a flurry of blog posts speculating on the actions of a McCain or Obama administration with regard to a federal rule.

Humantech understands that critics are very concerned that ergonomics rules may place another financial burden on Michigan’s and the nation’s already struggling economies. And employers, although cognizant of the heath and safety benefits to their workers, are understandably concerned about the cost. What many companies fail to realize is that the cost of implementing and maintaining an ergonomics program pales in comparison to the exorbitant costs of ignoring ergonomics.

For nearly 30 years, Humantech ergonomists have been acknowledged as experts in workplace improvement. We can tell you from experience that there has been substantial progress since the federal ergonomics standard of 2000 came and went. Our Fortune 500 clients have realized the economic benefits of ergonomics initiatives they launched voluntarily. They’ve demonstrated and documented repeatedly that applying ergonomics principles in the workplace is both good for people and good for business. Our clients have seen ergonomics prove to be one of the only initiatives they have undertaken that has both saved large sums of money from cost avoidance for claims by reducing injury and illness, and led to double-digit improvements in production efficiency.

Our Viewpoint: Humantech generally supports any activity that draws informed attention to ergonomic injuries or work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs), and encourages employers to take proper steps to systematically reduce risk in their workplaces. However, it is our view that a regulatory standard for WMSDs may be the wrong tool for the job.

  • Ergonomics Works. Despite arguments to the contrary (what could be called "carpal tunnel vision"), it has been well demonstrated (and documented) that occupational ergonomics initiatives have been successfully deployed across industry. Whether it’s technology, healthcare, finance, information, manufacturing, or services, the risks that cause WMSDs and productivity challenges are well known; these are problems that can be solved and the solutions are available. Ergonomics principles applied wisely improve both safety and performance.
  • A reactive approach is flawed. A regulatory standard, by definition, creates a minimal performance threshold. Specifically, ergonomics standards tend to emphasize reaction to injuries; however, our experience has shown that an "ergonomics by design" approach, focused on reducing exposure to the risk factors that cause injuries, is much more effective and efficient.
  • Carrot vs. Stick. A standard does not provide any incentive to encourage market-leading companies that know the best approach is to build ergonomics into their management systems. Philosophically, when it comes to carrots and sticks, we believe that preferred behaviors (doing the right thing) should be encouraged and the stick be reserved for those that do the wrong thing. Compliance has it backwards; those doing the right thing are not rewarded, and those doing the wrong thing are seldom punished. Regulations encourage people to do the minimum, whereas incentives drive organizations to improve their own situations, exceeding minimum requirements. Any state or federal involvement should focus on encouraging and providing incentives for employers to improve (the carrot), rather than punishing them for non-compliance (the stick).

What we propose: Both presidential candidates are on record proposing government investment projects in support of manufacturing innovation. John McCain would push for a renewed emphasis on innovation through Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADAs) in which industry and government enter into public/private projects. Barack Obama would create an Advanced Manufacturing Fund to identify and invest in the most compelling advanced manufacturing strategies.

Michigan’s 21st Century Jobs Fund, a state-level initiative, is in place and has already awarded over $125 million to Michigan businesses with the most innovative proposals to create new products and jobs in the state.

We submit that these are exactly the types of programs that could encourage and support ergonomic innovation and workplace improvement, make jobs safer and businesses more productive, thus able to create more jobs. More importantly, they provide the carrot to adopt the right course.