Understanding Ergonomics


I was recently doing research into fatigue management and read a really good analogy comparing operating machinery limits and applying that concept to employees. The analogy was written by Bill Sirois (Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer for Circadian). Using his analogy I thought it would be interesting to consider this from an Ergonomics perspective. The analogy went along the lines of… ask any engineer, production manager or CEO, if they will allow their machinery to work beyond the manufactures specifications, especially if their profit is directly linked to that machinery functioning optimally. Any responsible professional will probably answer “No”. Indeed most organisations hire appropriately trained professionals to service and maintain the machinery to ensure that it is operated within the manufacturers design specifications, in terms of service rates, operating temperatures, speed, amongst others. To do otherwise would likely lead to premature failure, costly downtime, high maintenance, and lost productivity/capacity. These costs are often directly measurable and so expensive that machine failure is not an option.

The key to understanding the application of Ergonomics is that we (humans) were not given a set of design specifications in terms of running temperatures and limits to performance. We have had to, in most cases, reactively measure these factors and make educated guesses as to what humans can and cannot accomplish with respect to the working environment. Also we are biological machines and from an Ergonomics perspective this means that we can adapt and improve on our “base model” with less of a cost. We don’t have to wait to be upgraded nor have additional functional components installed. It is this understanding that we make the erroneous assumptions that we can design environments or set work limits based on aesthetics or productivity demands and the human component will adapt. If they don’t adapt then the cost of failure is not critical in terms of lost production. This is especially the case when the labour pool is deep and cheap.

 A critical piece of research that companies should become aware of is “Economic Burden of Occupational Injury and Illness in the United States” J. Paul Leigh, Published in the Milbank Quarterly, Vol 89, No.4, 2011 (pp.728-772). This study revealed the startling information regarding the cost of occupational injury and illness.

 The study estimates the following:

˃      8,564,600 fatal and non-fatal work-related injuries, which cost $192 billion.

˃      516,100 fatal and non-fatal work-related illnesses, which cost $58 billion.

˃     59,102 combined deaths from occupational injuries and diseases, which was higher than all deaths from motor vehicle

        crashes (43,945), breast cancer (40,970) or prostate cancer (29,093) in the same year.

 Another concerning set of statistics is the data collected by the Bureau of Labor (sic) Statistics which records occupational injuries and illnesses. The interesting figure below clearly shows an increasing cost (in terms of days away from work) of repetitive type injuries and tendonitis (which is often attributed to repetitive work, probably more likely to be tendinosis).


Figure 1: Average days away from work due to nature of injury.

 Sourced from: http://www.bls.gov/

What is clear is that people are working beyond their capacity and this is an expensive situation for companies, probably a lot more expensive than what was budgeted, some figures range from 15- 20% of the payroll. At this juncture, I would like to bring your attention to the following research:  “Absenteeism Problems And Costs: Causes, Effects And Cures” Kocakülâh et al.,  Published in the International Business & Economics Research Journal – May 2009 Volume 8, Number 5. An interesting read for those concerned about absenteeism. Where Ergonomics can make a huge difference is in reducing the portion of absenteeism associated with musculoskeletal injuries.

As logic would dictate it would appear to make economic sense to follow Ergonomics research principles and implement a “design specifications for human performance” when designing work environments or setting production demands. Yet, ironically as stated by Sirois, our “most valuable assets” are being asked to operate outside their design specifications every day to support our continuous production requirements. The net result is clearly evident in the above research and figures. Our industrial research projects have shown in countless situations that employees work beyond their capacity. We have measured average working heart rates as high as 150b.min-1, employees walking over 25km per shift in safety boots that don’t accommodate their biomechanical needs. The outcomes then are obvious, using Sirois’s analogy, there will be an increase likelihood of employee failure (measured in terms of occupational injury and illness rates), which leads to costly downtime (in terms of employee absenteeism), as well as high maintenance (in terms of health and wellness and training costs). What companies have to ask is, what is this costing in terms of lost productivity and how are these factors undermining their profitability?

 An example of these “human design specifications” would be running a 100m. A maximal performance (outside recommended limits) would be running the 100m in 9.58sec (Usain Bolt World Record). The question, we as Ergonomists have to ask is “what speed is deemed optimal performance, considering the employee has to run the 100m continually for 20 years with minimal chance of being injured?” What will this time allowance be that will accommodate human ability and production demands? Also consider that in South Africa we have to deal with communicable diseases as well as under nourished employees.

Sirois said that “…continuing to neglect our most important assets will perpetuate this cycle of high costs and unnecessary risks. It is time to understand that these costs, risks and liabilities no longer have to be accepted and financed as part of doing business.” I agree wholeheartedly with this statement. This is especially true for the South African developing market where our predominantly manual labour force is often pushed to meet the demands and outcomes of developed countries. Applying Ergonomics principles and our understanding of the human body will allow your employees to work “within human specifications” which in turn helps address issues and costs surrounding employee longevity, reducing injuries and reducing absenteeism.


Dale kennedyswish

Bill Siros’s original article “The Myths & Realities of Fatigue: Reducing the Costs, Risks, and Liabilities of Fatigue in 24-Hour Operations”, can be sourced from the website www.circadian.com