When it comes to health and safety at work, no one would have a better understanding of how to enhance a job site than the employees who work there. This cannot be more true for a textile plant in Ontario, which saved more than a quarter-of-a-million dollars after implementing a participatory ergonomics (PE) program.
Unlike traditional ergonomics programs which engage a third-party professional ergonomist to evaluate the problem and implement solutions in the workplace, a PE program enlists workers, supervisors and managers from all levels of employment at a specific workplace to drive health and safety changes. This approach maximizes the involvement of workers in identifying and correcting factors that negatively affect their physical health, work conditions and productivity.
According to an economic evaluation performed by the Institute for Work and Health (IWH) in Toronto, the PE program has proven to be beneficial to the bottom line of an Ontario manufacturing firm. Findings of the study, published in the May, 2013 issue of Applied Ergonomics, analyzed a PE program at the clothing manufacturer in southwestern Ontario that employed up to 295 workers. Over a four-year period, the company realized a net benefit of almost $295,000.
Dr. Emile Tompa, an IWH scientist who led the study, says PE was worth the investment for both firms, considering that the ergonomics interventions were typically low-cost and low-tech. “Most of the costs were for ‘people time,’ rather than tools and workstation changes,” Tompa adds.
The study dates back to 2001 when the shirt manufacturer implemented a PE program using the process outlined in the how-to guide, Participative Ergonomic Blueprint, developed by the University of Waterloo. A worksite ergonomics change team was set up, which included management and union representatives from the plant, and two expert ergonomists not employed by the company.
Team members were trained to use PE principles to identify jobs for improvement, assess the ergonomic risk factors and develop solutions. As a result, the team implemented ergonomics changes for 97 workers in 27 different types of jobs. Most of the changes, which ranged from equipment and workstation adjustments to process improvisations, were made by the plant’s mechanics and maintenance staff.
Although numerous studies have been conducted on PE practices, few investigate the costs and benefits of these programs. Tompa says in a statement that the demand to have access to this kind of information is huge. “Resources are limited, so organizations want to know which health and safety alternatives provide the best value for their money.”
Power to the people
Participatory ergonomics is based on the premise that employees are in the best position to develop safety solutions that befits their work environment. By harnessing the experience and knowledge of frontline workers to address oh&s concerns — be that making minor adjustments to keyboards and desk chairs or modifying machinery and equipment — it builds upon the knowledge and the context expertise that the workers already possess.
“I like to think of it as empowerment, engagement and harnessing of employees,” says David Antle, a researcher at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. He has applied PE theories at EWI Works, which develops customized ergonomic intervention programs for workplaces. “It is building upon knowledge that employees have, and building and respecting the value that they bring and the context expertise that they have,” he says.
Antle points out that the problem with the traditional ergonomics approach is the lack of context. Workers rarely have an opportunity to provide input or offer solutions on the matter, but are often required to follow the instructions laid out by that ergonomist. “Particularly if that [ergonomist] is outside of the workplace, because there is no way that they can understand all the elements that make up the work,” Antle suggests. “What participatory ergonomics does is it changes the role of the ergonomist from being the be-all expert to being more of a facilitator.”
Many PE programs are in the experimental phases, but case studies throughout the country have yielded interesting results. Research from Health and Safety Ontario indicates that a PE program enhances worker safety, job satisfaction, performance and competency, amongst others.
“The key part of it is to have the worker — that person who knows his or her job well enough — to have an impact on the solutions that they need to work more safely,” says Dwayne Van Eerd, associate scientist with IWH who worked on the project. This approach allows workers and their knowledge of the job to aid in the quicker identification of both the hazards and solutions.
“Increasing productivity is also a direct desire of participatory ergonomics, so you tend to get more productivity with less hazard or injury,” Van Eerd adds, citing reduced symptoms of musculoskeletal disorders, lower lost-time claims, decreased absenteeism due to illness and an upswing in productivity as among the benefits of a PE program.
It also helps to boost morale and provides a sense of ownership — something that Dan Dubblestyne, health and safety global director at The Woodbridge Group, a foam manufacturing company in Mississauga, Ontario, observed as part of a study with the University of Waterloo. “It’s employee engagement and influence in its truest form. It’s getting everyone involved in ergonomic improvements, not just management,” Dubblestyne suggests.
Apart from raising safety awareness on the plant’s floor, employee buy-in ensures that there is support for the changes made, as opposed to accepting whatever is given to them. “And that goes a long way and it just makes for better employee relations as well,” Dubblestyne adds.
A long road
Although the overall outcome of PE programs is positive, the process is not without its kinks. It requires a high level of commitment from all levels of workers and significant internal resources to facilitate an overall cultural change.
For example, a disconnect between management and workers can potentially derail the program. As workers themselves are the change agents, they must devote time to engage in PE programs on top of their day-to-day duties. As such, Dubblestyne advises employers to be prepared to invest the time and energy needed to maintain the program’s momentum, which will influence its outcome.
However, keeping the momentum going may prove to be the most challenging task. “The concerns we still have in the end is that it is certainly difficult to sustain it,” Dubblestyne suggests. “It is difficult to maintain the interest levels on a long term basis, especially when you have picked all the low hanging fruit.”
Derek Morgan, regional consultant at the Public Services Health and Safety Association which runs the Employees Participating In Change (EPIC) program in Toronto, thinks that the ends justify those means. After implementing an EPIC program at a health care facility, he says he observed that training is a major influencing factor of a program’s success. “It takes a little a bit of time to develop that process internally,” Morgan advises, noting that maintaining the momentum and sustaining interest in the program is key.
By engaging the fro
ntline staff and harnessing their familiarity with work processes and the associated risks, “it improves the way that they work,” Morgan says. “On a much broader scale, it encourages that everyone is responsible to reduce risk within the organization as well.”
Before a company determines if it should adopt a participatory approach to workplace ergonomics, the three Cs — commitment, capacity and competency — will serve as a good guide, advises Kathy Kawaja, consultant at Human Factors North in Toronto.
“First of all, you need to think strategically,” Kawaja advises. “Get ready to be committed. You have got to have resources dedicated.”
Follow us on Twitter @OHSCanada
Sabrina Nanji is editorial assistant of OHS Canada.
While participatory ergonomics (PE) interventions can improve health outcomes, it can also generate benefits to the psychosocial aspects of a workplace. That includes boosting job satisfaction, improving design effectiveness at the workplace, inspiring confidence and competency, and reinforcing worker safety and performance, notes information from the Public Services Health and Safety Association (PSHSA).
But there are always two sides of a coin as numerous obstacles can undermine this intervention. They include the lack of a clear mandate, budget and time constraints, lack of management support, perception of extra work for participants, conflicts with job duties, lack of worker participation or interest and an ineffective internal responsibility system.
To help provide guidance, the PSHSA has developed the Employees Participating in Change (EPIC) program, designed specifically for Ontario’s healthcare and community care sector. Its purpose is to help employers adopt a PE approach to reduce musculoskeletal disorders and slip, trip and fall injuries.
The EPIC Program is built on a PE framework that encourages the transfer of knowledge in injury prevention, and provides an organization with the necessary skill and ability to systematically assess and control musculoskeletal disorders and slips, trips and fall hazards.
A proactive approach is critical to the program’s success as an organization considers facility design, physical demands and descriptions of job tasks, workplace assessment and prevention training.