At its heart, ergonomics is the study of how humans physically interact with objects in their environment. That could be sitting in a chair, using a handheld tool, or reading from a computer screen. In this article we’re concerned with the promotion of good ergonomics in the workplace, the effect that can have on your employee health and happiness, and in turn, your business productivity and profitability.
Whilst the health and safety of employees is reason enough in itself to pay attention to these issues, it’s important to recognise the wider benefits that good ergonomics can bring to a business. The available research indicates that there are a range of measurable improvements associated with better ergonomic design in the workplace.
According to the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors research has shown that effective office ergonomics interventions “…on average reduce the number of musculoskeletal problems by 61%, reduce lost workdays by 88% and reduce staff turnover by 87%. The Cost:Benefit Ratio is on average 1:1.78 with a payback period of 0.4 years.”
It’s clear then that as well as being important to the health and wellbeing of the workforce, taking ergonomics seriously can have a direct effect on the bottom line. It’s not just over a period of many years, but in the short term too – something that in the current climate no business owner can afford to ignore.
As well as the obvious gains in business productivity resulting from fewer sick days, ergonomics has an effect on the productivity of employees are during their time at work.
If the workplace environment or tools are poorly designed and cause employees unnecessary mental or physical fatigue, then they are likely to be less productive. This could be due to needing more frequent breaks, being irritated or disengaged by the difficulties caused by poor ergonomic design or simply becoming frustrated at being unable to complete tasks as quickly as they would like.
Conversely, a comfortable working environment with ergonomic desks and adjustable chairs for example, allows employees to spend more of their working time focussed on the task in hand. This leads to higher productivity. ErgoWeb cites a selection of interventions where companies have achieved as much as a 400% increase in productivity after acting to improve ergonomics.
Quality of Work
Businesses have found that the quality of work can also be affected. Poor ergonomics in the workplace can contribute to employees becoming fatigued or distracted and this can affect their ability to produce high quality work. That can be due to poor adherence to processes, impaired judgement or lack of focus leading to unnoticed errors in completing tasks.
This is illustrated by a 2015 paper published in the British Medical Journal, which explored the link between ergonomics and quality improvement in improving healthcare outcomes. It found a clear link between the two, stating in its conclusion that “a wider understanding of human factors (HFE) principles and practices will contribute significantly to improving the quality (effectiveness, experience and safety) of care for patients”.
Overall, a commitment to an ergonomically designed workplace forms an important part of the culture of a company. It demonstrates a consideration for employees’ well-being which, as well as delivering some of the benefits mentioned above, creates a welcoming and pleasant environment, and improves employee engagement.
As described in a recent Sovereign Health Care article “A stronger safety culture for your company means it can help to develop healthier and more vigilant employees who are a valuable asset, as they can create and nurture the safety culture within the business which may lead to increased performance.”
Taking all the above into consideration, it’s clear that business owners need to address ergonomics not only as an issue of occupational health or employee satisfaction, but as a genuine opportunity to create a competitive advantage and add value to the company.
How to improve your workplace
Identifying and implementing the right ergonomic improvements for your business depends on a large number of different factors, most unique to your situation. As a guide however, EHS Today advises a basic four-step approach:
1. Identify the risks
The first stage in improving the ergonomic design of your workplace is understanding the relevant issues. Undertake a review of your workplace, paying attention to the layout of the space, the equipment in use and the way in which employees utilise the space and interact with the tools they need to do their job. Note any areas where there is a risk to employee health due to the nature of the task, and what steps are in place to mitigate this risk. Some examples of common risks include; manual load handling, working in sustained physical postures, high noise levels, extreme temperatures or repetitive physical actions.
2. Control the risks
Having identified the risks, the next stage is to implement processes which mitigate the danger to employees. This can take a variety of forms, including eliminating high-risk activities where possible, adding breaks to portion out repetitive tasks, providing employees with the correct personal protective equipment (PPE) or changing the layout of workspaces to reduce unnecessary physical work. For office based roles, good training in safe use of display screen equipment is important.
It’s also vital from an administrative perspective to ensure that employees have access to the correct training and support materials, not only to ensure good practice but also to educate them properly on the principles of ergonomics and its importance in maintaining a healthy workplace.
3. Design the workspace
Whilst the controls described above play an important part in reducing the harm caused by poor ergonomic design, ultimately longer-term improvements are necessary to ensure a safe working environment.
There are two main areas to consider when implementing ergonomic improvements in the workplace. Firstly, the overall design should, as far as possible, minimise any risk to health or safety. Aspects to consider include the height of work surfaces and seating, convenience of reach and accessibility of tools, comfortable working temperature, lighting and ambient noise level and the configuration of keyboards, monitors and mice.
Secondly, employees should have the ability to further adjust or fine tune their working environment to suit their individual needs. For example, chairs should be adjustable for employees of differing heights, and storage areas should be reconfigurable according to the employee’s reach or capability for lifting.
As well as ensuring the environment can be adjusted to best meet the needs of the individual, this also allows employees to be more engaged with the principles of ergonomics, rather than seeing it as a “top-down” company issue driven purely by business productivity goals.
4. Deliver continual improvement
Having reviewed the ergonomics of your workplace and made adjustments where necessary, perhaps the most important step is to schedule regular reviews to repeat the process above. It’s important to implement a culture of continuous improvement when it comes to ergonomics, as the risks will change over time.
This can be due to hiring new employees with different individual needs, reconfiguring your workspace, bringing in new equipment or tools, or developments in ergonomic research which indicate new best practices.
Establishing a regular review of ergonomics in your workplace ensures that any new issues are ironed out before they become a problem. This allows your business to continue to benefit from the many advantages associated with good ergonomics.