When I am invited to speak to companies about the key elements of launching and sustaining an ergonomics initiative, the audiences that struggle the most are those that do not have “traditional” manufacturing environments. Perhaps their workforce is primarily made up of non-assembly line jobs, such as laboratory technicians, maintenance mechanics, mobile sales reps, field service technicians or stock pickers in a distribution warehouse. Despite their differences, the one thing many of these companies have in common is that they believe that traditional ergonomics doesn’t apply to them. When asked why, the response I hear the most is “But, We’re Different. I also get:
- “Our jobs aren’t repetitive. We don’t have standard assembly lines.”
- “We can’t control our work environment. Our field people are at the mercy of our client sites, the weather, etc.”
- “We don’t do the same thing every day. We might run one particular job for a week, and then again in three months.”
What I tell them is that, regardless of what your work environment looks like, there are two fundamental truths with respect to ergonomics:
- MSD risk is measured in a standard way against documented exposures to thresholds for force, frequency, and posture.
- Design changes to the working environment and work process (machinery, tooling, etc.) are the only way to lower the measurable level of MSD risk. Getting a fit, healthy person to do a physically demanding job does not change the overall risk level of that operation.
In my experience, companies can get distracted by figuring out how to accurately assess their jobs using traditional means, rather than making the necessary tweaks to allow an ergonomics improvement process to integrate with their existing culture (Lean, Six Sigma, engineering). Those companies usually fall back on administrative controls (for example, job rotation) or various wellness initiatives (like stretching or employee fitness) to reduce injury rates. Of course, these are important parts of an overall corporate program, but they don’t consider the fundamental truths described above and are unlikely to result in sustainable, long-term effects on injury rates.