Ergonomics is an engineering discipline. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) defines it as “…fitting workplace conditions and job demands to the capabilities of the working population.” Safety professionals apply ergonomics to, among other things, reduce exposure to the risk factors known to cause musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). Research has proven that sound ergonomic design is the most effective way to control this exposure. Yet, in benchmarking studies and conversations with ergonomics leads in organizations, getting engineers involved and accountable for ergonomic design continues to be a major challenge.
Here are a few tips for engaging engineers to include ergonomic design in products, processes, workstations, and job design.
- Set measurable performance expectations. Years ago, I was surprised to hear from an engineer (coworker) that he had been trained in ergonomics in school, but “no one has ever asked me to apply it.” We’ve seen that engineers have clear measures on meeting project budgets, timelines, features (e.g., quality), and even meeting safety regulations, but they are not held to ensuring that their design fits the capabilities and sizes of people performing the work. Leading organizations include metrics for designing for humans in their engineering projects.
- Provide a common set of design tools. The amount of anthropometric and dynamic information about humans is vast—much more than we had 30 years ago. And that is part of the problem. We’ve met teams of engineers, all referring to ergonomic design criteria, but each referring to a different source. As a result, the heights, reaches, maximum forces, and tool sizes vary within an engineering team. Effective groups use one common set of design criteria for all of their engineers.
- Prepare and train for success. Once engineers understand the expectation of designing to fit the capabilities of people, we need to ensure they will be successful. This is best accomplished through training or exercises that develop their ability to apply design criteria to an engineering project and improve fit and performance of people doing the task. This training does not take a lot of time. We’ve found that a four- to six-hour workshop using current projects is sufficient to build skills and confidence.
- Review and hold them accountable. Finally, make sure to follow through. Use your new process to ensure that designs meet the criteria and do not introduce MSD risks to operators. By including a review of ergonomic design criteria in the project evaluation, managers reinforce expectations, check design specifications against common design criteria, and hold engineers accountable for the quality of their design. Stephen Covey stated it well: “Accountability breeds response-ability.” This step of checking helps ensure that new products and equipment do not introduce MSD risks in the workplace.
These four actions will enable you to tap into the potential of all your engineers (e.g. production, process, manufacturing, new equipment design engineers, and space planners), and expand the success of your ergonomics improvement process.