Managing ergonomic risk in the office is never as easy as it seems. While there’s a variety of information available to guide smart decisions on optimizing office workstation design, ergonomics professionals will understand the difference between knowing how to proactively eliminate risk and actually putting those ideas into action. In this article, we’ll review what proactive risk management is, the challenges that come with it, and three elements that will help your proactive program succeed.
Why does proactive risk management matter for ergonomics programs?
Adopting a proactive approach to ergonomics risk management enables you to identify and eliminate ergonomic risk before it negatively impacts the health and well-being of your workforce. Musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) associated with repetitive desk work typically develop gradually over time, and if caught too late, they could have lasting, irreversible consequences for those injured. It’s because of this that relying on lagging indicators, such as injury rate, to identify risks and drive decisions will never get your program to a preventative state.
What gets in the way of preventing ergonomic injuries in the office?
Organizations face a variety of obstacles that might hinder their ability to proactively manage ergonomic risk1, such as:
- Limited time and resources: Limited budget can significantly impact an organization’s ability to secure expert resources, find time to implement effective risk management systems, and purchase the equipment required to support an ideal setup for each worker.
- Lack of communication: Tackling ergonomic risks on a proactive basis typically requires support from a variety of departments including Health & Safety, Engineering, Facilities, and Purchasing. Implementing interventions can be a huge barrier to overcome without effective communication between ergonomics program managers and other key stakeholders within an organization.
- Lack of management support & participation: Commitment and participation from management who have the authority to enact change are critical to the success of an ergonomics program.2, 3 Due to the complex nature of ergonomic risk factors, proving and communicating the ROI of a program can be challenging which makes it difficult to garner additional investment.
- Lack of knowledge and training: Oftentimes, even simple workstation adjustments that workers can make on their own can prevent ergonomic injuries. Without effective training, employees may be unable to achieve a setup that supports ideal working postures, even if they’re provided with adequate tools and equipment.
- Managing a distributed workforce: COVID-19 ushered in a fundamental rethinking of how we work. Many organizations are now adopting remote and hybrid work models, with 58% of U.S. adults reporting the ability to work remotely at least one day per week.4Considering this, managing ergonomic risk has become more challenging for organizations with the introduction of more workstation variability, and less control and visibility into how remote workstations are set up.
Three Key Elements
With multiple factors contributing to an organization’s ability to achieve and sustain a proactive program, knowing what to focus on first can feel overwhelming. If you don’t know where to start, consider focusing on how one or more of the following elements could be incorporated into your program.
As with any EHS initiative, effective employee engagement is critical to the success of your office ergonomics program. Often, organizations unknowingly create barriers to engagement and remove the ability to create front-line ownership for ergonomic risk management. Without that ownership, it’s difficult to create the culture needed for truly exceptional program results.
Practical ways that you can begin to boost employee engagement in your office ergonomics initiatives include:
- Communicate the vision of your program to employees so they understand the “why” behind it.
- Provide training to employees and empower them with the knowledge and tools they need to identify, assess, and address the office ergonomic risks that are within their control before seeking additional help.
- Give employees a sense of ownership by providing them with a voice and giving them simple ways to relay their concerns and ideas related to your office ergonomics program.
Leverage Program Data
Using data to inform intelligent decisions is a powerful way to drive your program forward, and understanding what leading indicators contribute most to negative health outcomes is critical to preventing them in the first place. Consider what program data you have, or could collect, and how it could be used to support initiatives to transition your program into a proactive state.
Examples of strategies for taking advantage of your data include:
- Establish a baseline of the current health of your office ergonomics program and use it to identify areas of strength and weakness. While lagging indicators are important to consider here, focusing on leading indicators, such as ergonomic risk, is essential to MSD prevention.
- Prioritize your resources based on areas or individuals most in need of support.
- Communicate program ROI and build a business case for investment by expanding the visibility of your insights to all stakeholders involved in the program, especially management.
Establishing consistency across your processes and workflows helps to maximize efficiency and takes the guesswork out of what is expected from everyone involved in the program. Standardization is particularly important for organizations managing a workforce located across multiple worksites or regions as it simplifies data management and makes it easier to identify and prioritize concerns across the entire organization. Once standards are established, introducing automation can help your team to spend less time on tedious administrative tasks and more time focusing on tackling complex risks.
Achieving a world-class proactive office ergonomics program doesn’t happen overnight but implementing any of the strategies above will bring you closer to your goal of eliminating risks before they lead to costly consequences for both your workers and your organization.
- Yazdani, Amin, and Richard Wells. “Barriers for implementation of successful change to prevent musculoskeletal disorders and how to systematically address them.” Applied ergonomics73 (2018): 122-140.
- Choobineh, Alireza, et al. “The impact of ergonomics intervention on psychosocial factors and musculoskeletal symptoms among office workers.” International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics6 (2011): 671-676.
- Matondang, A. R., and R. Ismail. “Management Support in Enhancing Participatory Ergonomic Interventions in Palm Oil Industry.” IOP Conference Series: Materials Science and Engineering. Vol. 851. No. 1. IOP Publishing, 2020.
- McKinsey 2022 – https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/real-estate/our-insights/americans-are-embracing-flexible-work-and-they-want-more-of-it