Participatory ergonomics: how one business earned a 5.5 : 1 benefit-to-cost ratio

May 16, 2013

Hands and Gears Involving workers in reducing the risk of musculoskeletal disorders is expected to save one Ontario clothing manufacturer $360,000, according to researchers involved in an onsite participatory ergonomics project. At a cost of $66,000, the project offers the employer a 5.5 benefit-to-cost ratio.

“Implementing a participatory ergonomics program could be the answer for any workplace looking to reduce the risk of musculoskeletal disorders and improve productivity,” says Workplace Safety & Prevention Services (WSPS) ergonomist Sandra Patterson. Read on for more about project, plus insights from Patterson on how to conduct a participatory ergonomics initiative in your workplace.

Participatory ergonomics initiatives involve workers in identifying and eliminating or minimizing ergonomic factors that could lead to musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). Typically, the goal is to improve working conditions, safety, productivity, quality, morale, and/or comfort by involving the people who do the work.

How the process worked

Researchers with the Institute for Work & Health worked with the clothing manufacturer to improve employees’ musculoskeletal health by reducing major risk factors. The project focused mainly on risks to the back and upper limbs. Almost 300 employees participated.

The initiative involved a two-pronged approach:

  • proactive - eliminating or reducing risks when designing new equipment or processes
  • reactive - identifying opportunities for improvement • assessing existing risks and prioritizing jobs for improvement • developing solutions • implementing prototypes • evaluating prototypes • adopting solutions.

This approach was managed by an ergonomics change team comprising management and union representatives from the plant, and two ergonomists from the institute. One of the ergonomists coordinated the team and trained members on participatory processes and ergonomic principles.

The team assessed all plant operations and made recommendations. On-site mechanics subsequently implemented changes affecting 97 workers in 27 operations. These changes were mostly low-cost and low-tech, and ranged from equipment adjustments to process changes.

To assess worker satisfaction with the changes, the team administered a one-minute survey at the beginning of the initiative, collecting information on demographics, work pace, pain reporting, how pain affected the ability to perform the job, how hard or tiring the job was, and other topics. The team also administered the same survey 20 months later.

The results

Workers affected by the changes were enthusiastic about them and rated them positively. IWH researchers who examined a number of health and productivity measures found significant improvements involving

  • first aid incidents
  • modified duty episodes
  • casual absences
  • long-term sickness absences
  • product quality and plant efficiency.

As mentioned above, the researchers calculated that the mostly low-cost, low-tech changes produced $360,614 in benefits at a cost of $65,787 - a 5.5 benefit-to-cost ratio. The costs included the trainer’s time, worker time during training, direct costs of implementing changes, and ongoing costs of the intervention, such as team meeting time.

A WSPS ergonomist’s experience

According to WSPS ergonomist Sandra Patterson, the results highlight aspects of participatory ergonomics that workplaces may not be aware of. For instance:

  • it's about more than prevention. “People often think that when we apply ergonomic principles we're helping to reduce injuries, and that's absolutely important. But we're really helping people work smarter, not harder, which means we're improving efficiency. Workers will be able to do their job well in the allotted time. It’s hard to focus on your job when your back aches.”
  • many solutions are simple. “Some people worry that we're going to reinvent their plant. But together we often come up with inexpensive, easy to implement solutions.”
  • most workers won't tell you about their work-related aches and pains unless you ask. “Workers may assume aches and pains are about aging, rather than being something preventable or correctable. Or they may be afraid of being labelled a complainer. So, the earlier workers receive training on MSD prevention, such as how to avoid stressful postures, the better. You're really training everybody to use brains rather than brawn.”
  • if you don’t pay now, you’ll pay a lot more later. “Investing in prevention now is much less costly than incurring the costs associated with lost-time injuries. Just look at the 5:1 return generated by the clothing manufacturer’s investment in prevention.”

Creating a participatory ergonomics process

Appearing below are eight considerations for launching a successful participatory ergonomics (PE) process.

  1. Determine the scope of the process. Do you want to focus on one particular job, operation or department, or look at the operation as a whole? “When setting the scope,” says Patterson, “keep in mind that you don’t have to do everything at once. Depending on the size of the organization, the scope of the project and the resources available, you may wish to phase in improvements over time. Does the organization have the knowledge and expertise required to implement the process? If not, consider bringing in outside support to manage any or all aspects.”
  2. Obtain commitment from managers and workers. “Without it, the initiative will fizzle out, leaving everybody frustrated and distrustful of future initiatives.” Not sure management will get on board? Build a solid business case using data from your own organization.
  3. Develop an MSD prevention policy, procedure and/or statement for the initiative, in consultation with workplace parties, and communicate it. “Include objectives, roles, responsibilities, and deliverables so that everyone understands upfront the nature and scope of the initiative, and the intended results: ‘This is what we're going to do, and this is how we’re going to measure success and share outcomes with participants.’ When setting objectives, look beyond just dollars and cents.”
  4. Involve a PE champion who can assemble a process team, coordinate meetings and motivate people to complete their action items. Depending on the scope of the project, the team may represent a cross-section of the organization, or just one area.
  5. Involve the right people. Possible team members include:
    • workers - the job experts who are affected by any changes
    • maintenance and/or engineering - inevitably, something will need to be made or adjusted
    • supervisors - to lead behavioural changes that may be necessary; this could include planning job rotations and coaching people on proper lifting and handling techniques
    • health and safety coordinator and/or joint health and safety committee members
    • labour representation - if there is a union, make sure it's onside
    • management - a project sponsor will clear the path for implementing solutions
    • purchasing - so that the purchasing department can prevent ergonomic problems from entering the operation in the form of poorly designed tools and equipment. “The further upstream we can apply ergonomic principles,” says Patterson, “the more easily we can eliminate hazards.”
  6. Define participants' responsibilities. Team members work best with well-defined roles, responsibilities and a code of conduct for meetings. Nothing is more frustrating than calling a meeting and watching people show up late without having done what they were assigned to do.
  7. Provide team members with ergonomic training so that they understand ergonomics principles, know how to recognize and assess MSD hazards, and can participate in identifying solutions. This helps workplaces develop the capacity to implement other PE projects.
  8. Make decisions through group consultation. The quality of solutions and likelihood of compliance with decisions is often greater when more people are involved, but figure out beforehand how to handle conflicting opinions.
  9. Celebrate your successes. People are often reluctant to change, but when they see how simple the change was and how much better their job is, other employees will be more receptive to future PE changes.

Additional reading

How WSPS can help

Check out the wide range of MSD-related resources offered by WSPS and its prevention system partners. These resources include:

  • workshops on conducting an office ergonomic assessment and implementing an MSD prevention program, both available for on-site delivery
  • 1-hour e-courses
  • Certification Part Two training on ergonomic hazards
  • MSD prevention guideline, manual and toolboxes developed by Ontario's Ministry of Labour, Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, Institute for Work & Health, health and safety associations, and Centre of Research Expertise for the Prevention of Musculoskeletal Disorders (CRE-MSD).
  • online sector- and task-specific hazard guidelines
  • downloadable forms (e.g., discomfort survey, hazards checklist, physical demands analysis)