EHS managers of lower-risk facilities know that providing a safe, healthy and comfortable work environment is key to employee productivity and engagement. As a result, many EHS programs include an ergonomic component to mitigate safety risks while enhancing employee well-being. Unfortunately, as companies expand operations to new locations, hire new staff, and more to more flexible workspaces, ergonomics can get lost in translation.
The good news is that an ergonomic assessment of your co-work or leased office, data center, warehouse, retail location, or other lower-risk workplace can point out areas of concern, which can help you launch a pilot program or re-energize your current program.
What Is an Ergonomic Assessment?
Ergonomic assessments are an objective study of how employees work. The assessments help identify the ergonomic risks such as repetitive tasks that can cause strains, improper work area setup, and improper use of tools, which can result in the development of work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).
If you’re planning on tackling this process yourself, consider the following steps as you craft and execute your assessment so you can gather the insights you need to build or refine your ergonomics program.
1. Review existing data and any past ergonomic assessments
Step one to crafting or improving your ergonomics program involves taking a history. You need to establish a baseline understanding of work-related incidents and injuries that have already occurred.
Review injury and illness logs, workers’ compensation reports, first aid logs, accident and near-miss investigation reports, insurance company reports, safety committee meeting minutes, and any worker reports of problems.
This will allow you to identify common issues, injuries and complaints--and to zero in on high-risk departments or job types. This, in turn, will establish a data-driven benchmark that will be important for measuring success in the future.
2. Establish a standard ergonomic assessment method
Your organization will likely conduct initial and follow-up ergonomic assessments to measure progress and identify improvement opportunities. As a result, it’s important to establish a standard assessment method and set of tools so you can compare apples to apples and accurately identify risk factors.
Create an ergonomic assessment brief that outlines your methodology framework and tools for collecting both subjective and objective data. Then use the brief as a guide to ensure each assessment follows the same set of tools and documentation methods. Some tools to consider using include:
- WISHA Caution Zone Checklist
- WISHA Hazard Zone Checklist
- WISHA Lifting Calculator or NIOSH Lifting Equation (check for phone apps!)
- Rapid Upper Limb Assessment (RULA)
- Rapid Entire Body Assessment (REBA)
- Snook Tables
- Hand-Arm Vibration (HAV) Calculator
3. Get a real-life picture of your facility
If you want your ergonomics program to be successful, you need to have on-the-ground knowledge of the environment that employees are working in.
Consider doing a Gemba walk of the facility in question. Get a glimpse of workers in action by going on-site to collect subjective observations. Take extensive notes, and consider capturing photos and video to help you remember specific details and generate improvement ideas.
If you have facilities spread around the world, engage a global EHS consultant with ergonomics experience. A consultant offers broad-based knowledge and expertise, and can not only conduct the assessment, but also provide the analysis--giving you actionable next steps. Many EHS managers have no travel budget, but have global responsibilities. While hiring a consultant is an additional cost upfront, it gets around this issue and gets you the data you need to make informed decisions.
4. Engage employees and get direct feedback on their workspaces
During an on-site visit, you’ll certainly need to hang back and observe workers in their natural habitats—but you should also take time to talk to them. Involving them in the process can lend you detailed, first-hand insights on how you can improve their work life, as well as strengthen your company’s safety culture.
Get the conversation going by explaining your mission and asking them questions about what they do, how they do it, how long they do it, who trained them, how they work, training standards, and how they feel about their environment. Some questions you could ask include:
- Does your job involve heavy or strenuous lifting?
- Do you experience discomfort while doing your job?
- Do you get easily fatigued when performing your job?
- What do you see as the biggest safety issue with your job?
- How would you solve the issue?
- What would make you more comfortable in your workspace?
Another way to gain employee insights is through a comfort survey. A comfort survey will allow employees to anonymously or openly share how they feel about their working conditions and any issues they’re having.
5. Gather objective data
Once you’ve reviewed hard incident and injury data, and observed and engaged employees in their work setting, it’s time to move forward with the more objective portion of the assessment process.
Use the insights you’ve already collected to create a comprehensive, prioritized list of job tasks and departments that need to be evaluated. Then pair that list with your chosen methodology and tools to start your objective evaluation.
6. Assess data and prioritize risk
Once you’ve collected both subjective and objective data and insights, it’s time to analyze what you’ve learned so you can identify job hazards and mitigation opportunities.
Begin by reviewing the information in its entirety, taking note of insights that stand out. Dive into each job type or department category to get a more granular picture of risks and potential opportunities. Then create a prioritized list of task risks and mitigation opportunities to tackle in the short-term and long-term. Some questions to ask yourself throughout this process are:
- What is the injury risk associated with this job type?
- What is the severity of injury?
- What is the likelihood of injury?
- Can the risk be mitigated or reduced?
7. Craft a plan to implement mitigation
Now that your analysis is complete, it’s time to put what you’ve learned into action. Bring your EHS team, safety committee, and/or operations management together and use your list to flesh out a strategy for addressing risks and mitigation opportunities. Some questions to consider during your discussion might include:
- What is our implementation timeline and is it realistic? (It's best if you are prepared with an initial suggested timeline.)
- What is the timeframe for addressing low, medium, and high risk concerns?
- How will we measure success at reducing risk?
- What training and resources are needed to implement, manage, and refine our ergonomics program?
- What other stakeholder groups should we engage?
- How will we communicate our plan and stay on track?
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to workplace safety in lower-risk environments, but these 7 ergonomic assessment steps will help you make a plan to reduce risk at your organization.
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