Quite often, we are challenged by our clients to help them justify the cost and effort of implementing an ergonomics process within their organizations. Sometimes we are justifying a particular project, and sometimes it's the entire process.

Manufacturing excellence initiatives are the key drivers of change in manufacturing today. The easiest way to recruit the required people and money is through those responsible for the organization's continuous improvement (CI) processes. If the goal is to modify a manufacturing process to reduce ergonomic risk, then align the activities with those of the CI team. To obtain support from this team, be sure your ergonomics process is both systematic and data-driven.

A systematic process for ergonomics involves five steps:

  1. Identify problematic jobs.
  2. Assess and measure the risk associated at each of the problematic jobs.
  3. Prioritize a list of problematic jobs based on the risk assessment.
  4. Identify countermeasures to the risks identified.
  5. Predict the impact of each countermeasure.

Steps 4 and 5 are the most challenging parts of the process. To overcome the challenge, concentrate your efforts on low-cost, high-impact engineering controls like workstation geometry, tool modifications and equipment retrofit, rather than "home-run," high-capital automation. Also, demonstrate the link from risk exposure to root cause to countermeasure to show how your improvement idea reduces the risk to the operator.

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If the focus is on these two strategies, the impact will be greater. However, if you want to increase your ability to influence the approval of countermeasures, you must predict their impact on production and quality.

Value  to Productivity and Quality (and Safety)

The mission for manufacturing excellence initiatives is clear: They must save the company money. The metrics used to drive cost reductions generally are in the realm of quality and productivity and are measured in seconds or units, in the case of production enhancement, and defect rate or rework in the case of quality improvement. Ultimately, they are expressed in dollars.

In contrast, the goal of ergonomics is to reduce injuries and illnesses, an area that does not fall easily into the metrics sheet for the manufacturing excellence leader. And while safety professionals know that reducing risk reduces the injury and illness incidence rate, the leap to predictable direct cost reduction is, at some level, a leap of faith, no matter how proven our track record is.

Much has been written about the argument that improved ergonomics supports operational performance. In 2010, Neuman and Dul published a review of 45 studies that appeared in peer-reviewed journals between 1988 and 2006. Of the 45 studies, 95 percent demonstrated a clear convergence between human well-being and operational performance. But, as with many scientific findings, there are skeptics. The clouds of doubt can be lifted, however, if a scientifically sound, data-driven approach is used. This type of approach measures the impact of ergonomic improvements on risk, and projects the impact on quality and productivity.

Though a systematic, data-driven ergonomics process will be considered credible by the Six Sigma black belt or lean manufacturing champion, credibility alone won't be enough to gain their support; you must demonstrate a link between their goals and the benefits of improved ergonomics.