Other Voices: Why Ergonomic Initiatives Fail and How to Improve Them Permanently

By Tom Morrison posted 11-27-2019 10:21


Desirable, usable equipment can ensure workers commit to maintaining ergonomic initiatives.


World-class manufacturers have the daunting task of improving ergonomics in massive facilities throughout the world. They spend a tremendous amount of time and resources researching and implementing ergonomic initiatives that can potentially save their companies millions of dollars.

When a company adopts a new ergonomic initiative, it relies on its employees to maintain it. The main problem is that many workers will abandon aspects of the initiative and fall back into old habits. This is particularly the case when employees are required to adopt a new technique – for example, pushing carts in a certain way – especially when the “upgrade” shows very little improvement in employees’ everyday lives.

Recently, The Ohio State University Spine Research Institute (SRI) released a list of reasons why safety initiatives fail or succeed. The study identified three guidelines for a successful initiative: usability, usefulness, and desirability.

In order to follow these guidelines and permanently improve ergonomics, manufacturers can select many different types of equipment for their facility. However, not all of this equipment will help practitioners keep ergonomic initiatives. In other words, different equipment varies in how well it permanently improves the productivity and safety of your facility, and this is because of how well the equipment matches these guidelines. Manufacturers should use gear that best enables them to follow these guidelines.

Buy something people actually use
First, your equipment needs to be usable. Think of usability as integration. How easily and seamlessly does this new piece of gear fit into your operations? Is there tedious training that needs to take place? The integration should be easy and intuitive.

A great example of this is an ergonomic arm, normally assembly, torque, and tapping arms. These arms attach to a rather cumbersome piece of equipment and alleviate any weight or laborious movement that a practitioner will normally have to do without the assistance of the arm. So, in this way, a practitioner integrates an ergonomic arm seamlessly into his or her workstation. The practitioner will require very little training and will essentially be forced to use it because it is attached to the tool itself.

Solve an existing problem
Your equipment needs to actually solve an existing and potentially painful problem so that it is useful. A great example of this is a lift table, which positions heavy loads at the perfect ergonomic level and comes in a wide range of lifting capacities, angles, and heights. This piece of equipment assures that employees will not have to continually lift and balance heavy loads that they would have to manually adjust otherwise. With a lift table, you have an extremely useful piece of equipment versus another piece of equipment with limited pragmatic use.

Notice a real difference and strive for more
Do the people using this equipment care about the upgrade? Do they notice a difference? In other words, do they want more of this equipment because they can actually see the difference in their everyday lives? How would they feel if this equipment were removed?

A great example of a “desirable” piece of equipment is an ergonomic caster. After casters have been installed, managers who have direct contact with employees can ask how they feel about the new products, how this equipment has benefited them, and how these employees would feel if their manager purchased more. This is particularly useful if the new casters are used alongside the old ones. Casters are particularly easy to assess because they are a direct connection between the ground and your product. Employees will be able to tell immediately how much of a difference this piece of equipment makes.

If employees have really felt the difference and are willing to describe their experience as highly positive, then it is quite probable that a company’s ergonomic initiatives will have a real chance of succeeding. At the end of the day, what really tells the tale is how well real people feel, day after day, doing their real jobs.

Ideally, a piece of equipment will have all of these features at once and encourage your employees to naturally adhere to the OSU SRI suggestions. In this way, they will seamlessly use it every day as a real solution to an existing problem. Ultimately, you can verify that it is “desirable” because your employees will ask for more. When this happens, it is virtually impossible for your ergonomic initiatives to fail.


Written by:  Joe Lyden, President of Caster Connection, as part of Modern Materials Handling’s Other Voices column, a series featuring ideas, opinions, and insights from end-users, analysts, systems integrators, and OEMs.