Employees are working longer and harder as organisations have to make do with fewer people (thanks to a harsher economic climate). Sarah Bannatyne, a certified professional ergonomist at Ergonomics Engineering, highlights how ergonomics can lighten the load

The International Ergonomics Association (IEA) defines ergonomics as: “Scientific discipline concerned with the fundamental understanding of interactions among humans and other elements of a system, and the profession that applies theory, principles, data and methods to design in order to optimise human well-being and overall system performance.”

But what does this actually mean? In layman’s terms, ergonomics is the science of designing a workplace (or job, system or product) so that it best fits the capabilities and limitations of the humans who work there (or use the product or system). Essentially it is about creating a better, safer, more satisfying workplace for those who work there. This, in turn, leads to improved productivity and ultimately enhanced business performance.

Perhaps the story about Procrustes, from Greek mythology, may shine more light on ergonomics. Procrustes was a robber who had the nasty habit of tying any unfortunate traveller who came across his path to an iron bed. If they were taller than the bed, he would chop off their legs to make them fit. If they were shorter, he stretched them until they fit.

If Procrustes had understood ergonomics, he would have made the bed (workplace) fit the person (worker), rather than the other way round.

In 2000, to ensure that ergonomics is holistically addressed within the workplace, the IEA proposed three broad domains within the subject, all of which are equally important.



Physical ergonomics

This looks at anatomical, anthropometric (the scientific study of the measurements and proportions of the human body), physiological and biomechanical characteristics as they relate to physical activity.

Topics include working postures, the manner in which material is handled, repetitive movements, strenuous work, workplace layout, environmental conditions and musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). (These encompass injuries or disorders that affect the human body’s movement or musculoskeletal system, including muscles, tendons, ligaments, nerves, discs and blood vessels.)

Cognitive ergonomics

This is concerned with mental processes as they affect interactions among humans and other elements of a system. Topics here include mental workload, decision-making, human-computer interaction, human error and work stress.

Organisational ergonomics

This looks at the optimisation of sociotechnical systems (the interaction between people and technology in workplaces), including their organisational structures, policies and processes. Topics include communication, job rotation, shift scheduling, effective use of space and teamwork.

So why is ergonomics important in the workplace?

Its objectives are twofold: to enhance the safety and well-being of workers and to improve the effectiveness and productivity of those workers in their work environment.

Ergonomics aims to ensure that the capabilities of the worker matches, or even surpasses, the demands of the task. When there is a mismatch between the job requirements and the worker’s capabilities, MSDs may occur.

Ergonomic risk factors for MSDs include task, individual and environmental factors (illustrated in Figure 1).  MSDs seldomly occur as a single event; rather, they result from prolonged exposure to the risk factor.

Figure 1: Risk factors for MSDs

Work-related MSDs are one of the leading causes of lost or restricted work time, as cited by the United States Department of Labour, in the United States (US) workplace. (Little to no data exists in the public domain for South African statistics, thus American statistics are used.)

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the US estimates that one-third of all lost workdays in that country are due to MSDs. Furthermore, it estimates that these disorders cost the US economy an estimated US$ 20 billion (about R293 billion) in direct costs and US$ 100 billion (R1,46 trillion) in indirect costs each year.

Interestingly, lower back pain is ranked sixth on the Global Burden of Diseases list, higher than malaria and just below HIV and Aids (illustrated in Figure 2). If one takes southern Sub-Saharan Africa into the reckoning, lower back pain drops down to number 15, five rankings higher than malaria (at number 20).

Yet we see numerous global awareness and funding initiatives aimed at reducing HIV, Aids and malaria, but very few for lower back pain.

But there is some good news too. Work-related MSDs can be prevented or, at least, their severity reduced. Employers need to understand the risks and address the causes, through effective risk assessment and the implementation of sound ergonomic programmes and solutions.

Systematically recognising and controlling ergonomic risk factors is an important part of a company’s commitment to providing a safer workplace. The following areas are those in which ergonomics can offer clear benefits for your business. These areas are not mutually exclusive and benefits within one area will almost certainly contribute to benefits in other areas.

Why should occupational health and safety care about ergonomics?

A large body of evidence supports the claim that ergonomics reduces accidents, illnesses and injuries, since good ergonomic processes ensure an effective match between a person and the job.  This results in fewer injuries and improves the lives of employees.

Two studies – Applied Ergonomics, economic evaluation of a participatory ergonomics intervention in a textile plant (published in 2013) and Work, 30 years of ergonomics at 3M (published in 2012) – show that a simple, participatory ergonomics intervention can reduce the number and severity of MSDs.

It also reduces the percentage of first aid cases, modified duty cases, ergonomic recordable injuries, lost time cases and Workers Compensation claims. This means a happier, healthier and more productive workforce.

Why should human resources care about ergonomics?

Ergonomics reduces absenteeism and staff turnover. This means that throughput and productivity increase, while the need to train new staff, with all the associated costs, is considerably reduced. According to Sanlam, direct costs associated with absenteeism cost the South African economy between R12 billion and R16 billion per year, while indirect costs associated with absenteeism may be up to four times this amount.

Non-health related absenteeism may be as a result of low morale, lack of motivation, stress and boredom, all of which can be prevented with some investment from the business (such as an ergonomics programme). With respect to staff turnover, Blake McGowan indicates in his webinar – Why Ergonomics? Communicating the value of business stakeholders – that the cost of hiring a new employee when someone leaves the company is equal to approximately 20 percent of that person’s annual salary.

Why should operations care about ergonomics?

Ergonomics improves quality, productivity and performance. When worker capabilities are matched to task demands, the quality of work improves. Conversely, poor ergonomics leads to frustrated and tired workers who don’t do their best work. Human error rates increase as workers become fatigued and the quality of the work drops.

According to Marcus Yung et al, in Applied Ergonomics – examining the fatigue quality relationship in manufacturing (published in January 2020) – fatigue accounts for approximately 42 percent of the variance in quality defects.

A reduction in fatigue, frustration and injuries, due to improved workplace design (designing for good posture, less exertion, fewer motions and better heights and reaches), also increases the output per worker, as well as overall performance.

Figure 2: Global Burden of Diseases

Why should management care about ergonomics?

Ergonomics improves the safety culture, employee engagement, human capital management and ultimately the bottom line of the company. Having an ergonomics programme shows commitment to health and safety as a core value.

Employees notice when the company is showing genuine concern for their well-being and this improves morale, increases employee involvement, loyalty and commitment. It also improves the corporate image and overall safety culture within the company.

Healthy, happy and motivated employees are a company’s most valuable asset and leads to an improved bottom line for the company. Leading companies are integrating ergonomics deeply into all their operations. There is strong evidence to suggest that socially responsible companies that invest in the health and well-being of their workers have a higher rate of business success than those companies that do not.

Lastly, but just as important, implementing an ergonomics initiative ensures compliance with ergonomics regulations, which form part of the Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Act 85 of 1993. These regulations were published in December 2019, thereby legislating ergonomics in South Africa. By ensuring ergonomics is current in your company, you will be ensuring your compliance with the OHS Act.

So where do you get started in this field?

Ergonomics should be a proactive process, not an afterthought. For it to have an impact on your business, you need to get in front of the problem. A proactive ergonomics process identifies risk factors and then reduces or eliminates them before an injury occurs.

Proactive ergonomics emphasises the prevention of work-related MSDs through recognising, anticipating and reducing risk factors in the planning stages of new systems of work or workplaces. This is far better than a reactive programme, where ergonomics is considered as a response to an injury that has already occurred.

A reactive approach is better than nothing, but if you keep doing what you have always done, you will get the result you have always had: unnecessary injuries.

Ergonomics used to be considered “a nice to have”. Now, however, with its proven benefits and the recent legislation, it is a discipline that demands recognition.

At a recent South African Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (Saiosh) workshop, Dale Kennedy, CEO of Ergomax Holding, put it succinctly: “Applied correctly and comprehensively in a business, ergonomics can be as important a business concept as strategic planning and quality control. It has a considerable impact on productivity, performance, throughput, service delivery and, most of all, bottom line. It can have an effect on an entire business by enhancing the most important business component – the ability of workers to do their work.”

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