Do we need ergonomics in the workplace?

By liamarus, 6 December, 2013

Ergonomics South Africa

by Dale Kennedy

I’m often asked if we need ergonomics in our business environments. Employers often feel that the services we provide, as ergonomists, are ahead of our industry needs. To a certain degree, they’re right within the South African context as we’re thought of as a developing country. However, our country is unique because we have a developing nation equipped with first-world technology. What is the result of this?

The consequence is that our labour-intensive workforce has to meet what the first world demands, which creates a situation ripe for ergonomic-related or bloodless injuries:

  • So we have over-worked labourers, often with high injury and absenteeism rates, which ultimately affect an organisation’s profits because workers aren’t working. You have to consider how your company’s profits are being undermined by these types of injuries:

-    Many of my clients can’t answer this simple question: “What is the task asking of the worker?” They are very quick to rattle off production output data, i.e. what the worker has to do, but the output figure has direct roots in financial and not human capability reasoning.

Ergonomics helps organisations to consider output differently

Initially, a return on ergonomics programmes is often difficult to quantify because the return on investment can be seen in lower compensation claims and reduced injuries. If an employee can complete a given task with less muscular force and less physiological effort when compared to the force and effort they expended in the past, they can complete more in a given period with less fatigue and a reduced risk of injury.
Obviously, output will increase and injuries will more than likely reduce. Anyone can see the benefit in that.

You need ergonomics in every type of working environment

The need for ergonomics is not limited to industries as, increasingly, the office environment is fast becoming a source for injuries and compensation claims. Why?

We assume that everyone has the relevant skills to work with computers. Think about the following:

  • How many employees work with computers in your organisation?
  • How many of these employees can touch type, i.e. typing without looking at the keyboard?

You’ll be astounded that THIS is the major problem, i.e. there is a mismatch between what we can do and what the task is asking us to do. Want to improve office productivity? Send all your employees on a typing course!

The other major office theme is that in this line of work, the majority of employees must remain stationary for long periods. What happens to a car that is parked and not moved for a long time? It slowly rusts and breaks down. The same principle can be applied to the human body and office work.

Often, employers dismiss office ergonomics as a soft solution, but think about what it meant to file a document 15 years ago and what it means today:

  • Today we sit, and we sit and then we sit some more. As a consequence, many employees are slowly being hurt and research is now looking at ways to make employees more active in the office, from standing desks, to treadmill desks to standing meeting rooms. There is a reason for all of this.

Yes, ergonomics is critical!

Ergonomics is probably the best scientific application that can fill the gap between third-world labour and first-world technology. The ergonomic level of application is the key and simple risk assessments will go a long way in helping to reduce injuries.

Consider for a moment what is currently happening in South Africa in terms of ergonomics:
The Department of Labour has commissioned a technical committee to address ergonomic regulations.

  • There is already compensation legislation covering work-related upper limb disorders.
  • Our construction regulations are being reviewed and ergonomics is a component of this.
  • The Green Building Council of South Africa has ergonomics credits and has recently launched the Green Interiors Toolkit.

Considering all this, we - as ergonomic consultants - are ahead of the game!

This article first appeared on HR Pulse.



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