The Economics of Ergonomics: A History of Working Success


By Dr. Alan Hedge

Are your employees working as effectively as they could be or are you unknowingly squandering productivity dollars? Do you have a problem with recruitment and retention of employees? Are some employees being injured at work? Is your company wasting thousands of dollars a year without you realizing it?

Many companies are unaware of the invisible and insidious effects of ignoring workplace ergonomics. So what is ergonomics and how can it help your bottom line?

Designing The World In Which We Work
Ergonomics literally is “the science of work.” Modern ergonomics began over 75 years ago with the simple goal of improving the design of work and workplaces so that workers are more satisfied, more comfortable, healthier and more productive at work. In short, ergonomics aim has always been a healthy and happy workforce combined with the best work tools and processes, resulting in the greatest levels of productivity.

The history of ergonomics is marked with success stories in the workplace. In the 1950s, ergonomics helped reshape coal mining through better tool design and group work practices to boost output per worker. In the 1960s ergonomics helped to revolutionize the production of cars when companies such as Volvo implemented socio-technical systems design in which employees worked in teams to assemble cars from start to finish to increase car production rates and product quality.

These developments also enabled organizations, such as NASA, to effectively develop sophisticated human-technology systems for space exploration. In the 1970s, ergonomics helped launch the microelectronics revolution that has subsequently transformed the developed world by defining processes for effective workplace designs for computer workers.

Given all of the tremendous benefits of ergonomics, how come many companies still either ignore ergonomics or see it as an unnecessary expense?

An Insider’s View of Ergonomics
As a professor of ergonomics for 40 years, I can give you an insider’s view of how my discipline got hijacked, misrepresented, and consequently misunderstood. The 1980s was a decade of enormous transformation. When IBM and Apple, along with several other companies, launched business capable personal computers, workplaces quickly transformed so that millions of people became computer users, often with little training and with little attention to redesigning workplaces to properly accommodate computer workstation.

By the end of the 1980s, companies were flooded by a deluge of new products (keyboards, mice, desks, chairs etc.). As most companies were typically were ignorant of the benefits of ergonomics, this onslaught of weird and wonderful, yet more costly products, was seen as mostly unnecessary. Consequently, in the 1990s, companies began to see a rise in work-related soft-tissue musculoskeletal injuries resulting from poorly designed workplaces and work activities.

A History of Perceived Expense
Ergonomics is a small profession, and given the epidemic of musculoskeletal injuries, other disciplines rushed in to fill the void and meet the demand. Suddenly, physical therapists, occupational therapists, chiropractors, and other paramedical disciplines claimed expertise in ergonomics.

As a result, by the end of the 1990s, ergonomics was seen as synonymous with musculoskeletal injuries and with rehabilitation recommendations that often required buying different equipment. Ergonomics was seen as a knee jerk reaction when someone had a problem, and ergonomists dealt with each case on its own merits. It was seen as a costly discipline, and one that should be ignored until someone was injured.

Aligning Ergonomics with ROI
Moving forward to the present, ergonomics is reaffirming itself as the work design systems discipline that marked its birth. If a company follows the principles of good ergonomic design from the start then the resulting workplace design is no more expensive, and most importantly, workers do not get injured and they are more productive.

Over the past few years several studies have been undertaken to determine the return on investment (ROI) for implementing a good ergonomics program along with good ergonomic workplaces designs. The conclusion from this work is that the ROI for good ergonomics is 17:1. In other words, for every $1 that a company invests in good ergonomics, they will see a return of $18—in better productivity, in fewer musculoskeletal injuries, and in better recruitment and retention because workers are more comfortable, more satisfied and happier.

A Proactive Transformation of Productivity
Approaches to ergonomics are also transforming. Many companies still practice ’reactive ergonomics’ wherein the occurrence of a problem or an injury is the trigger for an ergonomic intervention. If problems aren’t reported, then the company is blind to the loss in productivity that inevitably occurs as a musculoskeletal injury cumulatively develops.

The 17:1 ROI is based on such reactive ergonomic interventions; so, imagine what the benefits can be if a company adopts a proactive ergonomics program where employees are screened for musculoskeletal injury risks and ergonomic issues potential impacting productivity before injuries occur and accidents happen. A proactive ergonomics program can tell companies what issue need to be addressed by good ergonomic design and training so that interventions can be effectively implemented before injuries and productivity losses occur.

Using artificial intelligence and expert systems designs, new ergonomics software has been developed that can quickly and easily screen any workforce for injury and ergonomic risks so that ergonomic interventions can readily be tailored for optimal impact. The benefits of a proactive ergonomics program can also provide a credit in the U.S Green Building LEED certification process, and ergonomics is also incorporated in the new WELL building certification system.

In short, we are seeing a rebirth of ergonomics as more and more companies are seeing the widespread benefits of implementing a good ergonomics program, and as they are realizing that good ergonomics truly is great economics.

Top Five Areas HR Can Flex
Be smart and stop being reactive: Use the latest cost-effective ergonomic screening software to find who is at risk of what injury and who is having problems that lower their productivity. Armed with this information you can target ergonomic interventions that solve the problems and prevent injuries.

Establish a proactive ergonomics program: This is an ongoing process of continuous work and workplace improvement. This can also be used for LEED credit if you’re ever building new space or renovating space.

Develop internal ergonomic standards to guide product purchases: You will need one for most people (5th percentile woman to 95th percentile man), and one for ‘exceptional’ individuals (those who are differently–abled and require special accommodations).

Don’t always believe marketing hype: Just because something is advertised as ‘ergonomic’ doesn’t mean it’s true; seek out expert opinions from qualified ergonomists.

Quantify your ROI for ergonomics: Don’t just see ergonomics as a cost; establish an ergonomics program that makes business sense.

Alan Hedge, MS, PhD, CPE, C.ErgHF is director of the human factors and ergonomics laboratory at Cornell University, as well as the program chair of the National Ergonomics Conference & Exposition 2016.

(PeopleTalk Fall 2016)

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