Embracing participatory ergonomics

Getting all levels involved in process can reduce injuries and boost productivity

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) and injuries remain one of the most common occupationally compensable costs to employers in Canada. Musculoskeletal injuries (MSIs) are also one of the leading causes of long-term absences from the workplace, and often require accommodations for a proper return to work. 

Aspects of a job that increase the likelihood of developing MSDs and injuries include: working at a pace that is too fast to allow for adequate rest, handling heavy loads, making forceful movements or repeatedly holding static postures for long periods of time. Additionally, being exposed to local or full body vibration, bending and twisting away from the resting posture and working in cold conditions while exposed to any of the other risky activities will increase the likelihood of injury. 

The number and severity of MSDs resulting from poorly designed workspaces and the associated costs can be substantially reduced by applying principles of ergonomics in workspace design.

Many organizations have come to realize that engaging an ergonomics specialist can help in the selection of appropriate equipment and workspace designs. This helps to reduce injuries and increases productivity. 

A “participatory ergonomics” intervention starts from the assumption that employees (including workers, management and engineers) who are involved in efforts to identify hazards and reduce risk bring essential knowledge about how the work is done, allowing for a more complete understanding of the situation. Participatory ergonomics harness the full breadth of employee knowledge of the organizational, physical, social and psychological factors associated with potential injury by promoting their engagement within the full process, including the identification, design and implementation of ergonomics interventions. 

If workers have participated in developing the solutions, and are engaged in the management of change processes, they will be more likely to accept changes to equipment or procedures. The active engagement and participation also helps to ensure that changes are implemented in a way that is realistic and consistent with employer and employee needs. 

For many organizations, this work would be spearheaded through the joint health and safety committee. For organizations that do not have in-house expertise, it could mean bringing in an ergonomics consultant who works with the committee and all other organizational levels to establish the system. The best of these programs will include providing resources for the development of a cross-functional team, with representation from multiple levels of an organization who are trained in ergonomics, perform observations and analyses, and then suggest solutions.

That being said, participative ergonomics should not be limited to the resolution of complaints or reported injuries. When an organization is considering significant changes in the workplace (for example, adding new equipment or moving locations), it is crucial that workers are engaged from all levels of the organization. Incorporating input into ergonomics-related considerations right at the design phase will proactively prevent injury and illness related to MSDs so organizations can avoid costly retrofits later on. 

While many organizations have seen success and reduced injuries using a participatory ergonomics approach, not all are able to maintain the success in the long run. This is frequently because the participatory ergonomics approach is seen as a solution to a particular issue, rather than as a process to be integrated into an organizations safety management system. 
There are significant gaps in the research regarding how participatory ergonomics consider the majority of the aspects commonly found in an organization’s overall occupational health and safety management system (OHSMS), according to the 2015 Canadian study “How compatible are participatory ergonomics programs with occupational health and safety management systems?” in the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment and Health. 

Some of the more concerning gaps in many programs are the lack of considerations regarding how organizations could maintain and continuously improve MSD prevention activities. Documentation and control of records, communication processes and audits were also frequently overlooked.

Knowing these potential gaps exist, an employer can instead use its existing safety management framework to introduce a fully participative ergonomics program. Unlike the generally accepted model that includes only the affected workers and management or an ergonomics “champion,” the entire organization is moved to recognize ergonomics principles and practices as an important aspect of the full occupational health and safety management system. As such, the participative ergonomics process should be viewed as an ongoing function that is incorporated into the daily operations, rather than a “one-off” project.

One model of how an organization can accomplish full integration of ergonomics into its OHSMS is to follow the guidance of “Z1004-12 - Workplace Ergonomics — A management and implementation standard” from the Canadian Standards Association. 

A fully participatory ergonomics process can be started by the top level of an organization by ensuring resources are supplied to set up a broad system that includes management commitment and leadership, planning processes for each level of the organization, a process for implementation, systematic evaluation process against the set goals, and a review process that ensures continual improvement. 

Other specifics of the process should include:

  Members of high-level management taking on an oversight role to ensure all levels are embracing the integration of ergonomics into the full OHSMS.

  Ensuring ergonomics principles are included in the policy and general procedures for how the system shall be established.

  There is a provision of resources to managers, supervisors and members of engineers, purchasers and facilities management teams, and the roles at each level are defined as to who will be responsible for integrating and maintaining ergonomics into the functioning of the OHSMS.

  Worker or union representatives are involved in the establishment and maintenance of the process.

  All workers are trained on how to recognize symptoms of MSIs, and the process and expectations for reporting such injuries.

  A clear and transparent communication process is developed for how reports move through the OHSMS and how changes will be implemented in the workplace.

  Health and safety committee members, or representatives, are trained and involved in the principles of ergonomics so they can participate in determining the true underlying or potential causes of injuries and develop recommendations.

  Recommendations for change are presented back to the affected parties to determine their suitability and appropriateness.
Introducing a fully integrated and fully participative ergonomics approach into the workplace can seem daunting. Workers may be concerned the employer is “looking for efficiencies” to cut jobs. 

Some management may feel they are losing some of their power because of the inclusion of workers in the decision-making process. 

Knowing about these potential problems can allow an organization to get in front of any such issues, and the open and participatory nature of the program should actually help to quell most concerns. In the end, most organizations find that the benefits — in lower costs, increased employee engagement and morale and, most importantly, reduced injury rates — make the time and effort required well worth it.

Troy Winters is senior health and safety officer at the Canadian Union of Public Employees in Ottawa. He can be reached at (613) 237-1590 ext. 289 or [email protected]

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