The Importance of Ergonomics in the Workplace

Four business women sitting on office chairs.

Ergonomics is designing and organizing workplaces to optimize workers' capacity for productivity and health. (Image: Mark Hunt via Dreamstime)

Ergonomics is designing and organizing workplaces to optimize workers’ capacity for productivity and health. It is multidisciplinary and draws from various fields as diverse as industrial engineering, computer science, biomechanics, safety engineering, and psychology.

Virtually every workforce in the world uses ergonomics. The control rooms of big data use it, and so do small business offices. Factory floor workers and astronauts in the space station deploy ergonomic principles. Medical devices and consumer products both follow its design as well.

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Ergonomics focuses on several elements. First, its design ensures that workers sit in ways that do not cause strain on their backs. It targets the space over which any worker, from assembler to administrator, has to reach to get the materials they need, whether they are boards for Silicon Valley’s chips or pens and legal pads for corporate strategy.

It makes sure assembly line workers walk comfortable and efficient distances. But, most importantly, it minimizes or eliminates repetitive strain.

Repetitive strain, lifting heavy equipment, and frequent use of keyboards can all cause strain and injury. (Image: Fizkes via Dreamstime)

Ergonomics: The health and safety benefits

Repetitive strain, lifting heavy equipment, and frequent use of keyboards can cause all strain and injury. Overall, worker injury costs U.S. companies US$1 billion every week. However, properly designed ergonomics in the workforce can considerably reduce damage and costs.

Statistics tell this story. Several decades ago, John Deere and Company, the U.S. agricultural equipment manufacturer, extensively redesigned its work areas using ergonomics. The result? An 83 percent drop in employee back injuries.

This not only improved worker health and productivity, but it contributed to the corporate bottom line. For example, Deere’s worker compensation costs fell nearly one-third over the next five years.

Companies often analyze injury patterns before calling in ergonomic engineers. For example, a mainframe computer manufacturer, AT&T Global Information Solutions, examined its injury logs.

They found the most common injuries were lifting, fastening, and keyboarding. In addition, a combination of workstation redesign and employee training brought a 75 percent reduction in worker compensation costs in the first year alone.

Following that success, the company restructured the work process more significantly. They moved from assembly lines to worker-built computer cabinets. Ergonomic design, in this case, meant assemblers were involved in a greater variety of movements rather than a few constantly repetitive ones.

It also meant they shifted between sitting and standing rather than remaining in one position. As a result, the company saved nearly US$1.5 million in workers’ compensation costs and significantly increased the number of days that went injury-free.

Ergonomics and the aging workforce

While ergonomics is essential to every segment of the workforce, it is particularly significant to the older workforce. It’s a fact that older people have less strength, balance, and flexibility. Their reaction time may also be delayed, losing speed, manual dexterity, and hearing.

As a result, older workers are at higher risk of musculoskeletal disorders and related injuries. The U.S. workforce is aging, too. In three years, it is projected that 25 percent of the workforce will be 55 and older, and nearly 17 percent will be 65 or over. So ergonomics can be very helpful in ensuring these workers can work productively and safely, and they can benefit the rest of the workforce with their experience.

Older workers are at higher risk of musculoskeletal disorders and thus benefit from ergonomics in the workplace.
Older workers are at higher risk of musculoskeletal disorders and related injuries (Image: Dark1elf via Dreamstime)

Still crucial in the age of automation

Even in the age of automation, people continue to be extraordinarily important in future manufacturing plants. While robots may do repetitive tasks, humans who can work with robots and plan and oversee manufacturing processes may even be more critical than ever.

Many processes in manufacturing plants are highly complex and require humans. Implementing proper work-safety procedures will decrease accidents and strain. Managers can facilitate the optimization of productivity and reduce the risk of injuries by taking proactive steps to make workplaces more ergonomically effective. These steps can include the following:

  1. Review the data. Where do most accidents or injuries happen? Chart the occurrence for at least six months. What processes and equipment are involved in the most frequent occurrences?
  2. Explore the area. Once a manager has pinpointed where the most accidents and injuries occur, examine the site. Are there ways for tools and workers to be brought into better alignment? Positions that need to be adjusted? Equipment that needs to be redesigned? Lighting that needs to be better?
  3. Involve the workers. No one knows the ins and outs of a job like the workers. Companies who have achieved success with ergonomic redesigns, such as John Deere, interface with the workers in both planning and rollout and ask for suggestions and ideas.

Ergonomics is essential for productivity, safety, and health — and it is more important than ever as the workforce age and human workers become more scarce, yet more significant.

Written by Megan Ray Nichols

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