Ergonomics done right.®
March 14th, 2008

Nature vs. Nurture: Can you “behavior” your way out of a bad work environment?

Every year at the Applied Ergonomics Conference, we’re treated to an overwhelming demonstration of the impact being made at leading companies through the application of good workplace design. This year’s Ergo Cup competition – where companies share their efforts and results on specific ergonomics improvement projects – was no exception. 35 teams, representing 16 companies and 6 countries, shared their bottom-line impacts from improvements to productivity, quality, material costs, and employee health & safety.

Boeing employees had to install galleys weighing up to 1,000 pounds inside airplanes, requiring extremely high forces and awkward postures. Sure enough, people were getting hurt and product was getting damaged. Average annual injury costs and average annual damage costs were both over $200,000. The site came up with an innovative "commodity mover" that improved the work to the point that only 1 person is needed (previously, 5 were needed to wrestle the units in place). The annual bottom line impact on quality, productivity and injuries was reported at $427,000.

In previous posts we’ve mentioned similar success at GE, Honda of Canada, Honda of America and PPG Aerospace. The amazing thing about these bottom line improvements is that they were all made with minimal investments – generating better than a ten-to-one payback in the first year in each instance. These are great illustrations of the saying "people make productivity happen", and the idea that removing obstacles through workplace improvements pays off handsomely.

In contrast, there was an article in yesterday’s New York Times blowing the lid off the idea that stretching can improve performance or prevent injuries. Dr. Charles Kenny, an orthopedist, was quoted as saying "if stretching was a drug, it would be recalled." He said that stretching weakens performance and makes injuries more likely. This is consistent with our review of published research on stretching to prevent work-related injuries – its simply a dead end solution.

Interestingly, none of the Ergo Cup examples above focused on teaching people proper lifting techniques, getting them to lose weight, or working on their flexibility through stretching. While these wellness agendas are noble (and often times needed), they are not a substitute for practical workplace improvements.