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Key Practice Area - Safe and Healthy Workplaces - Managing Ergonomics
Key Practice Area: Safe & Healthy Workplaces

Managing Ergonomics

March 2011

This white paper by Walt Rostykus, Vice President at Humantech Inc. explains the benefits of using quantitative risk assessments to manage ergonomics programs.


Setting the right goal and measures is essential for an effective ergonomics process. Learn how to set the right goals and metrics in this white paper on “Managing Ergonomics” by Walt Roskyus, Vice President at Humantech Inc.

White Paper

Managing Ergonomics

By Walt Rostykus

February 2011

As a manager of environmental, health and safety (EHS) programs, you’ve probably heard the oft-quote adage, “What gets measured gets done.” The adage and practice is true, but the right goals are not always set or the right metrics measured. We’ve found this especially true with the management of occupational ergonomics.

Setting the right goal and measures is essential for an effective ergonomics process. The traditional goal is to reduce ergonomic injuries using the traditional measure of incidence rate of ergonomic or musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) injuries. I call this ‘traditional’ because it has been used by most companies since the early 1980s. Unfortunately, both the goal and metric are lagging measures of consequences (injury), thereby preventing organizations from anticipating, identifying and taking action to prevent the loss.

In a recent benchmarking study of ergonomic program management we found that:

  • 54% of participating companies still used injury incidence or lost workday case rate (of MSD’s, sprains and strains) as their primary goal and measure for workplace ergonomics (a lagging measure of consequence).
  • 15% had no specific measures for ergonomics. Instead, they considered it part of the total injury/illness rate.
  • 31% tracked the level of exposure to MSD risk factors, a leading measure of cause

This last group was most effective in proactively preventing the causes of MSD’s, and ultimately sustained more than 10 percent reduction in their overall injury/illness rate annually.

One key element of successful ergonomic processes is that they focus on reducing the risk, not reacting to the consequences. They typically establish a common goal to reduce employee exposure to a level or low or no risk, when feasible. This one common goal aligns everyone to “True North”, that is, aligning everyone in the organization to work toward a common end point. With it, engineers focus on providing low risk workstations, tools and processes, and employee teams (e.g. ergonomic and safety teams) focus on assessing workstations and making changes to reduce the level of risk to an acceptable level.

We know from research that MSD’s are caused by three primary risk factors: awkward posture, high force, and time (long duration or high frequency). Combinations of these increase the chance of developing an MSD and the threshold for each varies by body part. We can quantify the exposure to these ergonomic risk factors using tools such as Rapid Entire Body Assessment (REBA), National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Lifting Equation, and Baseline Risk Identification of Ergonomic Factors (BRIEF). Think of them as dosimeters for MSD’s.

Quantitative risk assessments provide measures at two levels: They identify the amount of exposure at an individual task or workstation, and they monitor the status of improvement across an organization. Plus, they eliminate the need for and use of subjective assessments (eg. narrative description, employee complaints). With this information you can track risk exposures at the workstation, department, value stream, plant and company-wide levels.

A risk-based goal and measure allows you to anticipate and prevent MSD losses, provides management with an objective determination of where ergonomic issues are, and where they are not; and provides a system for holding people (e.g. engineers, supervisors) accountable for the quality of the workplace they manage.

About the authorWalt Rostykus is a Vice President and consultant with Humantech Inc., a consulting firm that combines the science of ergonomics with their unique 30-Inch View® – where people, work, and environment intersect–to deliver practical solutions that impact safety, quality, and productivity.

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