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August 31, 2011

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Lifting, handling and ergonomics – Perfect match

In these recessionary times, says Nigel Heaton, ergonomists and health and safety practitioners need to be able to prove “the economics of ergonomics” to ensure the workforce in their organisation remains safe and productive.

In the current economic climate, many organisations are required to do more with less. There is an emphasis on increasing productivity and cutting costs (often with little regard to benefit). Workers, whether in factories or offices, are expected to deliver more for the same reward (or, in some cases, for less!)

This increase in work pressure can, for some staff, be highly motivating, particularly if it is accompanied by an increase in status, financial or otherwise. However, the extra pressure can also increase the likelihood of staff getting injured, particularly as a result of insidious, cumulative problems (e.g. developing musculoskeletal disorders). The ergonomist is often asked to look at individuals and their jobs and intervene to make things better – through redesign, training, or rehabilitation. Studies show that MSD costs can be hugely reduced through the right intervention.1

The challenge for ergonomists is determining what exactly they can do. Many practitioners, when asked what they do, are subsequently asked: “So what do economists do?” In today’s cash-strapped times, the question we ought to be prepared to answer is: “So what are the economics of ergonomics?”

The cost of failure

In the mid-1980s the Department for Trade and Industry commissioned work to look at the cost of failing to consider ergonomics. It produced case studies about IT systems that failed because the users were unable to use them; products that were withdrawn because people didn’t understand them; and, in extreme cases, serious accidents that resulted in significant harm because of poor design.

In a seminal paper on tracking usability defects, ergonomists from Hewlett Packard demonstrated that failure to apply ergonomic principles at an early stage of design led directly to the delivery of a product that could not be used.2 The cost of handling just one call to its Customer Support team could wipe out its profit from the sale of the component in question.

Surely we have progressed beyond this? In the 21st century we should no longer see doors with handles that we are required to push, IT products that we cannot use, and accidents caused by basic design flaws because the ability of the user was not taken into account.

But ergonomics still has to be cost-justified, particularly in environments where every spend is examined. So, what are the cost-benefits?

Much health and safety effort is predicated on the ability to prevent accidents. We make cost-benefit cases based on preventing what are (in most cases) infrequent events. A budget-holder must make a decision over whether any additional resource will provide a demonstrable benefit in terms of preventing injury, lost operational time, or punishments.

Notwithstanding efforts to measure health and safety performance using leading, rather than simply lagging measures, budget-holders still gauge success on the levels of accidents, injuries and ill health. The challenges inherent in this are that there will still be some bizarre accidents, trivial incidents may still lead to disproportionate injury, and the causes of ill health (and therefore absence) may not be work-related. Worse still, in many cases, incident rates are so small that they are not statistically significant for a given period – we might see zero accidents through a combination of effort and chance, and chance may change next period.

However, many organisations simply are unable to account for poor ergonomics, nor are they able to answer the question: “What is poor ergonomics costing you now?” Insidious, cumulative injuries – such as musculoskeletal disorders – are hard to predict, the costs are hard to quantify, and the rehabilitation of sufferers is far from certain.
But the bottom line is that ergonomics interventions, in the form of actively predicting and preventing injuries through rehabilitation and redesign, can prevent organisations from incurring major costs. In its occupational sense, ergonomics seeks to match work with workers – beyond simply “not injuring” the person. Good application of ergonomics methods can affect:

  • the number and range of errors that a user of a system can make;
  • the duration and complexity of the training process for any task; and
  • the efficiency with which a user can move themselves and manipulate items in their workspace.

These are all measurable elements, and the cost-benefit of ergonomics effort in relation to them is, typically, more readily predictable, measurable and understandable than the prevention of accidents and ill health. If we set out to reduce operational errors – whether in making widgets, using accountancy software, or making decisions on whether or not a system is safe – we can define what success looks like (fewer reject widgets, more accurate financial management, systems that are safer by design). We can measure progress, we can explain why what we did affected outputs, and we can even use “controls” to show the difference between otherwise matched groups.

Note also that not all ergonomists are the same. A well-rounded ergonomist will have studied a combination of applied human biology and cognitive and behavioural psychology, along with the methods of applying these sciences to work. They won’t just be someone who is able to carry out the occasional workstation assessment.

Ergonomists are required to deliver real improvements in performance, maybe through increased productivity, reduced sickness absence, or a reduction in claims. This is not just about complying with regulations and ensuring that the forms are filled in – it is about putting in place proactive care mechanisms and developing systems that:

  • help organisations identify problems early;
  • prevent problems becoming more severe;
  • ensure poor ergonomics does not become a significant cost for the organisation;
  • provide a framework allowing staff to work better;
  • allow staff access to the tools and techniques to look after themselves; and
  • encourage staff to report problems early, in the knowledge that they will be treated appropriately and be offered effective solutions.

Engagement and responsibility

It is often forgotten that the original European Directive on Health and Safety (89/391/EEC) required all organisations to consider ergonomics – to “adapt the work to the individual, especially as regards the design of workplaces, the choice of work equipment, and the choice of working and production methods, with a view, in particular, to alleviating monotonous work and work at a predetermined work rate, and to reducing their effect on health”.

While this was subtly removed from the UK’s interpretation of the Directive (i.e. the Management Regulations), ergonomics still appears throughout basic regulations relating to using computers, manual handling, selecting and using equipment, etc. Most organisations are pretty good at meeting the basic ergonomic requirements contained in these regulations and, though there seems little real prospect of enforcement, there is still great value in this in terms of compliance.

The application of basic ergonomics principles can keep organisations out of the civil courts, which clearly expect them to be proactive and create clear audit trails that demonstrate how their workers are protected from harm caused by poor ergonomics. As a minimum, there should be evidence of assessments around people using computers, carrying out significant manual-handling activities, and undertaking jobs where there are significant stressors.

But ergonomics is not simply about making sure employees understand basic rules, or being mostly reactive. For example, the management of manual-handling risk is not about teaching staff to bend their knees and keeping their back straight – it is about engaging staff in a process that optimises their performance while looking after their long-term occupational health and safety. Training needs to be highly tailored, reinforced and backed up by effective supervision.

Similarly, managing DSE issues has to move beyond a simple checklist coupled with brief online training. It should be about ensuring that staff are making the best use of their equipment – be it a chair or a keyboard – that they understand what to do if they start to experience symptoms that might be indicative of the early onset of a musculoskeletal problem, and that they know when to stop and get help.

Responsibility must also be cascaded down to the workforce, so that workers can solve most of their problems themselves. The role of the ergonomist is to manage the systems in place and ensure their effectiveness. In practice, this means convincing managers that they “own” health and safety, and training staff to take a more proactive approach to looking after themselves and others.

Of course, this is not so easy. If the organisation already sees the benefit of taking a proactive view of occupational health and safety, then there is no need for the ‘hard sell’ but, if it doesn’t, practitioners must get better at communicating and persuading organisations to find answers to such questions as:

  • What are ergonomics problems costing the organisation at the moment?
  • How well do our RIDDOR data reflect what is actually going on in ergonomics terms (e.g. how well are insidious injuries being recorded)?
  • Are we happy that the reactive view presented by considering how many serious injuries our staff have experienced actually delivers benefit to the business?
  • How well is sickness absence monitored? 
  • Is there a disconnect between HR and Occupational Health, so that problems around absence caused by stress are not adequately captured or managed?
  • Do we always investigate root causes of accidents, reviewing not just the person but the tools they were using, the environment they were working in, the job they were doing, and the reason why they were doing the job that way?
  • If so, does the investigation drive systemic change? 
  • Are we learning as an organisation, and developing an organisational memory that allows us to avoid repeating the same mistakes?
  • Do our staff understand what is required of them?
  • Are they sufficiently well trained and supported so that they can put good ergonomics into practice in the day job? and, most importantly
  • What are the organisation’s core values in terms of ergonomics? How much do we care, and how do we show that we care?


Practitioners need to help organisations understand what ergonomics is costing right now. This means starting with the reactive data and gathering together information about sickness absence, personal-injury claims, enforcement action, etc. We must also explain the process that underpins the headline figures – how much time does it take to investigate accidents and deal with the enforcing authorities? This can be a particular challenge for cumulative, insidious injuries, where causation is often opaque and disputed.

The cost-benefit of ergonomics derives from the basic principles to which all ergonomists adhere, and is encapsulated in the phrase “matching the job to the individual”. Understanding how people work, how they can get hurt, and what simple steps can be taken to match the job to the person will produce a safer, better and, most importantly, more productive workforce.     

2    Marshall, C, Brendan, M, and Prail, A (1990): ‘Usability of product X – lessons from a real product’, in Behaviour & Information Technology, 9, 243-25

Nigel Heaton is a director of training and consultancy group Human Applications.

Approaches to managing the risks associated Musculoskeletal disorders

In this episode of the Safety & Health Podcast, we hear from Matt Birtles, Principal Ergonomics Consultant at HSE’s Science and Research Centre, about the different approaches to managing the risks associated with Musculoskeletal disorders.

Matt, an ergonomics and human factors expert, shares his thoughts on why MSDs are important, the various prevalent rates across the UK, what you can do within your own organisation and the Risk Management process surrounding MSD’s.

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12 years ago

Nigel will be taking this discussion further when he speaks about ‘Getting the Board on-board’ at the Workplace Ergonomics & Productivity (WEP) exhibition & conference at the Royal Horticultural Halls & Conference Centre in south London on Wednesday 26 October. For details of this two day event and how to listen to Nigel, see