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HR Magazine - April 2000: Making Ergonomics Go

By Robert J. Grossman  4/1/2000

HR Magazine, April 2000

Vol. 45, No. 4

Good ergonomic practices improve workers' productivity, morale and injury rates.

The chickens seemed to be flying as the conveyer belt sped along the de-boning line. Thirty-three birds per minute, never slowing throughout the eight-hour shift. Many of the 80 workers along the line wielded razor-sharp knives, slicing and cutting up the passing birds. Others, with gloved hands, pulled skins, removed gizzards or stacked vats of debris, laboring in the poultry processing system that converts factory-farmed birds into tasty chicken products that are staples of the American diet.

"We have some tough jobs out there," says Don Robinson, corporate ergonomist at Goldkist Inc. in Atlanta, the nation’s second-largest chicken processor, whose 18,000 workers handle 15 million chickens a week. "The heart of a processing operation will be some labor-intensive jobs that, by definition, require repetitive action."

When Robinson joined Goldkist after 19 years at Liberty Mutual, the leading writer of workers’ compensation insurance, he was well-versed in ergonomics and repetitive stress problems in textile, furniture, aluminum and computer manufacturing. But he did not really know how tough these poultry processing jobs are. To get a feel for chickens, he went to work on the factory floor.

"They put a gigantic vat of birds at the beginning of the line and you’re supposed to put one chicken on a cone as the conveyer belt goes by," he recalls. "The first time I grabbed a chicken, it squirted out of my hand. When I quit after 10 minutes, I was able to do the task but only at one-third the required speed."

With such physically demanding jobs, the meat and poultry industries have been plagued for decades with repetitive stress problems. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)—with its mandatory reporting of recordable injuries—has had processors in its sights since the 1980s.

Late last year, OSHA published a proposed ergonomics rule that would require manufacturers to establish basic ergonomics programs. Business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, strongly oppose the controversial mandate. A final rule is expected by the end of the year.

But Goldkist does not have to be convinced about the benefits of an ergonomics program and has not waited for regulations. Robinson signed on two years ago because of Goldkist’s quest for excellence in ergonomics. “Historically, the poultry industry has been slow in some safety issues,” he concedes. “But at Goldkist, there’s a solid commitment.” Goldkist’s recordable injury rate in the first half of 1999 was 10.33 per 100 employees, 38 percent lower than the poultry processing industry average of 16.6.

By the Numbers

Ergonomics is the science of fitting the job to the worker. Ergonomists focus on ways to make sure the design of equipment and the work processes take into account the limitations and capabilities of human users. They are interested in eliminating or, at least, minimizing as many repetitive motions as possible from a worker’s job even when a particular motion does not directly cause an injury.

According to OSHA and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), each year 1.8 million workers experience injuries related to overexertion or repetitive motion. Of those, 600,000 are injured severely enough to require time off work. Musculoskeletal injuries (MSDs) such as carpal tunnel syndrome and back strains cause one-third of all workplace injuries.

The BLS numbers, based on OSHA’s mandatory reporting requirements, point to a serious national problem. In fact, the BLS numbers may understate the problem significantly. Studying workers in Connecticut in 1996, researcher Tim Morse at the Ergonomics Technology Center of Connecticut in Farmington, found only 10 percent of workers reporting MSDs filed for workers’ compensation, suggesting that in most cases their injuries would not show up in OSHA reports or on workers’ compensation rolls. Instead, costs of treating these workers were absorbed by the individual, employer health and medical providers or through government sources like Medicaid.

Despite that, MSDs are responsible for increasing workers’ compensation claims to between $15 billion and $20 billion per year, making them among the largest workplace health costs. Workers’ compensation rates vary widely depending on how well a company handles MSDs and other safety issues. Premiums are based on a company’s three-year history of medical and indemnity outlays. “A 2,500-person plant with an ineffective ergonomics program could be paying three times what the successful plant pays,” Robinson says. “Every state has its own rate schedule, but an average premium would be about $500,000. With a good record, the company’s payment could go as low as $200,000; a company with a poor record could be shelling out as much as $800,000.”

Some companies, like Goldkist, are moving in whole or part to self-insurance. They fund the costs of MSDs and other injuries for less than the workers’ compensation premiums. At Goldkist, the average claim costs about $10,000. The company self-insured up to $500,000 per claim.

Best Practices

Many companies, among them Compaq, 3M, Pratt & Whitney and Goldkist, have discovered that improving the work environment boosts morale, lowers injury rates and yields positive returns on investment (ROI). “Our goal is not regulatory compliance, that’s the price of admission,” says John Frey, manager of corporate health and safety at Compaq Computer Corp. in Houston. “We strive for best industry practices because we can demonstrate payback from that level of performance.”

Compaq features a decentralized approach that encourages site managers to pursue creative solutions based on the particular needs of their facilities. “How we do it in Singapore may be different than in Brazil or Houston, but we get it done,” Frey says. “Local management teams bought in because they can craft their own solutions.”

Effective ergonomics programs tend to evolve over time, explains Nancy Larson, corporate ergonomist at 3M in St. Paul, Minn. “Almost all programs start with the company trying to fix an MSD problem reported by a specific employee. At the next level, you’re still basing your program on reported MSDs but beginning to be more proactive, thinking how the fix might be applied to other jobs. You’re doing some training and looking into ergonomics as you design and purchase new equipment. At level three, business units understand how ergonomics helps them reach their profitability goals. You’re at the fourth level when ergonomics is a valued part of your business culture.”

Best practice companies, those operating at levels three and four, customize their programs to their particular needs and philosophies but share common elements: upper management support, employee participation, an early reporting system and proactive hazard evaluation.

Enlisting Management Support

In safety-conscious organizations, ergonomists are moving into the mainstream of business operations. At Goldkist, ergonomist Robinson is called on to review all planned operations and equipment purchases from an ergonomics perspective. “It’s better for the workers and more cost-effective to factor in ergonomics at the blueprint stage,” he says.

At Compaq, health and safety professionals participate in management decisions. “Our guys are sitting at the table providing a consultative service,” Frey says. “They partner with the senior managers at the site—just like finance and HR managers do.”

Frey says the best way for advocates to get to the table is by making the business case for ergonomics. For safety and health staff this often requires a change in thinking. “They’re used to going to senior management and telling them what they need to do to comply with OSHA or other regulations. That worked with some OSHA mandates but not in ergonomics. The science still doesn’t substantiate what causes the injury—repetitive motion, stress, working and non-working environments all factor into it.”

To get beyond ‘the jury is still out on ergonomics’ arguments, Frey says ergonomists have to become business partners and sell employers on the value of doing the right thing. “We’ve spent money on vacuum lifts and adjustable height workstations. It’s a big capital investment up front, but we were able to prove it’s worth it,” he says. “We’ve shown return on investment with increased production, employee comfort and reductions in injury.” Since Compaq introduced its health and safety standards in 1992, its injury rates decreased 175 percent while its workforce tripled to 68,000. Today, the rates are one-third the industry average.

Return on Investment Examples

Recently, when a 3M worker groused about discomfort on a packaging line, it triggered a visit from the site’s ergonomics team. The workers were packing cartons containing an epoxy product that included two different size pails, gloves and a stir stick. The team’s solution made everyone happier. “We went to a separated sealed pouch, eliminating the need for the pails and stir stick,” Larson says. “By getting rid of the pails we decreased the need for warehouse space and cut costs because the plastic pouches were cheaper. We reduced reaching motions. The new product was easier for the customer to use, and we’re saving $250,000 annually.”

Gas and electric giant KeySpan Energy, the parent company of Long Island Power Authority and Brooklyn Union, the nation’s fourth-largest gas utility, with 1.5 million customers, called in Ergonomic Technologies Corp. (ETC) to help it cut spiraling repetitive stress back injuries. “The direct costs of a back injury are only the tip of the iceberg,” explains Tom Barracca, KeySpan’s manager of electric research and development. “Down the line, after you replace people and provide alternative assignments for workers returning from an injury, it’s easily two, three or four times more expensive.”

Using videos, site observations and modeling, ETC produced a comprehensive workplace assessment of targeted jobs and responsibilities. Then, teaming with workers and staff, it developed cost-effective solutions. “About 80 percent of the recommendations were low cost—a combination of small fixes that would solve the problem like prescribing the right shovel for a task,” Barracca says. “It was basic stuff, but it really paid off. The program cost $200,000 but, for every dollar spent, we saved four in reduced injuries.”

Leonard Walsh, health safety engineer at Pratt & Whitney, a jet engine manufacturer in East Hartford, Conn., says he sells ergonomics with data demonstrating improved product quality and cost savings. Solutions have run as little as $2; but, whatever the price, Walsh always tallies the ROI. “I’ve solved problems that cost $100,000, but showed ROI in less than three months,” he says. “I’m talking quality aspects and throughput on a component. We’re designing machinery that allows people to work on a part better and faster.” At Pratt, a serious MSD injury costs the company from $6,000 to $30,000.

At Goldkist, Robinson continues to prove that ergonomics can reduce worker pain and injuries and still be profitable. Recently, he reconfigured an inspection line where a worker removed rejected birds from the conveyor, carried them six feet to a reject line, and hung each bird at head height causing shoulder stress. “We redesigned the reject conveyer line to curve in close to the operator inspector station,” he says. “Now, the six-foot walk has been eliminated, and the worker only has to lift the birds off the reject line directly at elbow height. The result is increased efficiency and elimination of the high shoulder injury potential.”

Larry Hettinger, director of human factors and ergonomics at Arthur D. Little in Cambridge, Mass., says he is baffled at the reluctance of many organizations to launch full-fledged programs, given the strong financial payoffs demonstrated by best practice companies across service and manufacturing industries.

Of the more than 50 ergonomics audits that Arthur Little has conducted in recent years, 95 percent resulted in positive ROI, says Hettinger.

In one recent audit, “The key was to make changes relatively easy to pull off. You can’t recommend pulling everything out and re-tooling the whole factory. We suggested changes involving positioning of workers, reductions in loading height [and] changes in the workplace layout. One company achieved a 30 percent improvement in productivity while decreasing the risks of shoulder and movement injuries. Total investment for the consulting and equipment changes was $100,000. First-year savings alone, based on reduced injuries and increased productivity, was more than $200,000.”

Throwing money at a problem is not always the best solu tion, says Kenny Sawyer, SPHR, director of human resources at paper manufacturer Bowater’s Coated Paper Division in Catawba, S.C. “A lot of companies spend a lot when they could have done simpler things. I’m an advocate of exercise programs that can be done on the factory floor.” Sawyer discovered the therapeutic value of exercise at a previous job where workers stringing racquetball rackets developed carpal tunnel syndrome. “The injury had progressed to the point that they couldn’t brush their hair,” he recalls. He solved the problem with a simple exercise program. “We bought Nerf balls and they’d pause twice a day and do a series of exercises. Soon the problem went away.”

You can’t force-feed ergonomics to unwilling workers, cautions 3M’s Larson. “When we analyze a job or process, employees are included. The philosophy we follow is that the employees are the experts on their jobs. If we don’t tap into their expertise, we won’t find the right solutions or identify the real problems.”

Trying to impose solutions from above is a key pitfall, agrees Morse of the Ergonomics Technology Center of Connecticut. “I’ve known employers to request stealth evaluations; they want you to evaluate the job when the person’s not there. But it doesn’t work that way. You can’t assess a job without factoring in the worker’s perceptions and expertise.”

It’s a better idea to foster an open environment such as the one at Pratt & Whitney where workers participate in problem identification and crafting solutions. Management and the union (the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers) partner to offer all workers basic ergonomic awareness training. Twenty-five teams—300 worker and manager volunteers—coordinated by Walsh, conduct on-site assessments and rec ommend changes. Ideas and innovations are shared through a web site and Walsh’s brainchild, an ergonomics encyclopedia. Walsh holds monthly meetings to discuss problems, and he publishes and distributes the minutes.

If you want to get workers on board, forget the big stuff. Instead, make some quick, tangible improvements that workers can appreciate. Barracca at KeySpan came up with an improved kneepad and a glove that muffled vibrations for workers using jackhammers. “We did vibration measurements with work gloves and compared them to the standard glove. Then we purchased the different types of gloves, let the workers try them and did a survey. Not only did we get good data, we got buy-in. The word got out that we were making work safer and healthier, suddenly our services were in demand.”

Do interviews, review logs, survey your workers, organize employee committees and work cooperatively with your union, Sawyer counsels. “The more buy-in at the lower levels, the better you’ll do. If you’ve got a problem or complaint, go in and look at your jobs. Take pictures of people violating simple ergonomic rules. Make slides, show them to managers and ask them which rules are being violated. Then, with their help, go about systematically changing things. Some changes will be really simple, like adjusting the height of a chair.”

At Goldkist, new workers view a series of videos and demonstrations by plant trainers before joining the line. For the first month, they’re supervised on a slower training line. Jobs are rotated every two hours in an 8-hour shift when possible. The company also has implemented a knife sharpening program. “It’s critical from a muscular-skeletal perspective that the 400 workers in each processing plant have a straight and sharp knife,” Robinson says. “Each worker gets three knives per eight-hour shift.”

Reporting Early and Often

Studies show that the critical driver in controlling MSDs is the expensive claims cases that require surgery. Wait too long to treat a problem and it’s likely to become worse, often leading to surgery. That’s why most programs focus on early identification of problems, encouraging workers to report early signs and symptoms of wrist or back problems then intervening with low-cost medical or therapeutic treatments.

Employers worry that if they encourage workers to report aches and pains, they will be deluged. “We tell HR not to worry,” says Morse. “You’ll get a spike in your early reports, but the problems will tend to be low in severity and costs won’t increase very much. Often, no clinical intervention will be required. You’ll be able to assign the worker to a different job while the symptoms go away.”

“When you implement a program and do the training, injury or discomfort reports are going to increase,” confirms Frey. “HR worries, ‘if I teach workers to report, won’t I get four times more complaints?’ Yes, but when you catch them before an injury, there’s little or no expense. In the long run, you’ll save, but you have to have the faith to get over the hump. I’ve seen anywhere from six months to a year before it levels off.”

At Goldkist, Robinson credits early reporting with helping workers correct bad habits and practices that increase the likelihood of serious injury. “We have a staff of nurses at every plant that counsels and treats workers when they report a problem,” he says. “Nurses evaluate the job, counsel on good technique and posture, and start conservative treatment such as ibuprofen.”

“We encourage people not to self-treat but to report to medical,” adds Walsh. “If we can get things early, we can head things off downstream. But if you haven’t done your homework in addressing the design or engineering problems, whatever the doctors and therapists do to help the problem will be for naught.”

Proactive Evaluation

Bowater’s Sawyer says the plant management’s first question every morning in the operations meeting is, “How did we do in safety yesterday?” But Bowater, like many other best practice employers, does not just talk about safety. Through its gainsharing program, managers and workers are rewarded for high safety and low injury records.

At Goldkist, Robinson conducts an annual audit of all aspects of each facility’s ergonomics program. He looks at all components and assesses the accomplishments of each worker and management team that focuses on ergonomic issues at each worksite. “Each committee should complete five to seven major projects annually,” he says. “We also look for 10 to 20 quick fixes, like situations where the height of a conveyer belt is adjusted to eliminate bending.” The assessment yields a score for each facility that is factored into the safety, health and environment scorecard that senior managers are judged against in their annual reviews.

In the final analysis, sound ergonomics practices may make sense from financial and health perspectives. “Whether you’re a nursing home, an auto manufacturer or a data entry company, it’s a mistake not to implement an ergonomics program,” advises Cynthia Roth, president of Ergonomic Technologies Corp. in Oyster Bay, N.Y. “Any place that people have to work with tools or equipment—a 90-pound jackhammer or a keyboard—you want to give them the tools and process to be most effective, to decrease costs and increase the bottom line.”

Roth adds that there are economic risks in not implementing ergonomic standards. “It’s like black lung and coal mining, like cancer and asbestos; we know that a lack of ergonomic implementation in our products, processes and equipment design breed injuries, lost work time, production and quality problems.”

Robert J. Grossman, a contributing editor of HR Magazine, is a lawyer and a professor of management studies at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

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