Despite there being an Australian population that has already proven to be extremely receptive to the benefits of ergonomics, misunderstandings and misrepresentation of the discipline are still rife. SARA PAZELL clears up the confusion.
There was a recent report in The Sydney Morning Herald that was very misleading in its representation of the discipline of ergonomics. Citing the testimony of an authority on back pain, Sydney University professor, Chris Maher, the piece fundamentally mischaracterised ergonomics and its place in the workspace, categorising it as a science of medical treatment.
This is not at all what ergonomics is. Instead, at its most fundamental level, ergonomics is about work analysis and work design, used to inform structural designers and organisational strategists about the best practices for prosperity.
It is very diverse and crosses multiple domains in physical, cognitive and organisational social science. But the underpinned philosophies are human-centred design – how do you design for people to be productive, efficient, healthful and certainly safe, as well as free from injury? But it is not a treatment-based profession.
When you meet a certified professional ergonomist, the likelihood is that they will also have a diverse array of credentials, knowledge and skills. I’m a case in point: I am an occupational therapist. I am a certified professional ergonomist. I have a master in business administration. I have recently submitted my PhD thesis for examination in human factors and ergonomics. I have fitness credentials, safety credentials and training credentials. I am able to coalesce all of these skills and bring them to the forefront to understand how business operations work. For the purposes of this article, it is this that perhaps signifies best how a professional ergonomist can make a difference to a business and the stakeholders responsible for its success – by having a positive impact on the bottom line.
How does that happen? It all begins by having an ergonomist enter your workspace. When I do this, the number one priority is understanding what are the human performance requirements in that space – what are the tasks that people need to perform, what are the demands within that task, the performance components, who the workforce is, what is the diversity in that workforce now, but also into the future, what is the desired target workforce?
This requires from the ergonomist an ability to be immersive, to have empathy for the work that people do. A quality way to analyse tasks is through direct observation and interview. What are the knowledge, skills and abilities needed to perform a particular role? What are the tactics, approaches, heuristics, decision-making rules of thumb, the interpersonal and intrapersonal skills? How long is it necessary to sit, what needs to be carried and what is the equipment that will be used?
It’s all about system design – understanding the current systems and then working out what gaps and opportunities exist.
Then there are the more abstract qualities. What is disclosed? What is prescribed and what is imagined? Who in the ivory tower of any particular organisation really understands the work that is being carried out? What does management think its workers are doing during their eight or so hours a day of employment?
It is vitally important that this conversation is a two-way street with the worker, because when they are fully engaged in the process, when they contribute to the design practice, they become an architect of superior work design. I’d suggest that 60 percent of my time as an ergonomist I am simply being the catalyst for conversations that are already happening in the workforce. But I am able to give those conversations shape, context and solutions, and then create a very structured report, which gives management clear insight into the needs of its workforce.
So for a property facilitator or a facility manager, the benefits of ergonomic principles soon become clear.
To begin with, there is usually excellent uptake on the uses of the space. When people feel the tasks that are meaningful to them are well provided for in the design of that space, there needs to be very little rework, very little maintenance, less cost, less environmental demand, better sustainability and, therefore, fewer energy costs.
A good example of the above is lighting design. Office workspaces frequently have homogenised overhead lighting systems that don’t meet the diverse array of tasks that will be performed, let alone the wide array of people who will be carrying out those tasks. The introduction of simple focal task lighting, which is more subdued and offers more hues in the orange, amber and red range, can reduce the overall energy cost by up to 30 percent.
For the worker and the ergonomist this addresses the health and productivity agenda, but for the facility manager there’s a strong argument for their sustainability agenda, to say nothing of a healthy ROI (return on investment).
To further property and facility managers’ understanding of ROI, a brand new tool has recently been rolled out in Australia. Ergo IQ is an online customised cloud-based assessment of workstation fit, with an algorithm that has been developed so that its logic changes with the user, their equipment and their personal needs. There is an element of education and coaching along the way, as the user receives training when they interface with the technology. The outcome is aggregate reporting to decision-makers and significant procurement or human resources workforce strategy.
What Ergo IQ delivers are benchmark measures to understand satisfaction levels. Once money has been spent on design and fitout, that can almost be sunk cost, but if a workplace has been designed well for agility with a focus on health and human-centred design for the tasks that need to be performed, then even a one percent change in productivity over a life cycle of 20 years can mean a 10 percent payback to those initial upfront costs, which is a huge ROI.
If the humans in the workplace are the most price elastic element of productivity and you can affect human performance in a positive way, with a minimum 10 percent payback on the initial investment, there is simply no argument against ergonomics. Even from those who mischaracterise it as a treatment-based profession… ●