Reflections on Ergonomics and its (NO) applications

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First I want to clarify that this post is, as its title indicates, personal reflections that I have accumulated during all these years working in safety. Therefore, I do not intend to explain the results of extensive studies and surveys, that in fact, do not exist, but my review of the current situation and future of ergonomics, or where it should be headed.

Traditionally, Occupational Health and Safety has focused on the fundamental objective of safety. We have made huge investments in improving the safety of workplaces, machines, production processes; but what happened to ergonomics?

15 years ago, when I started working in safety, there were many methods of ergonomics, RULA, OWAS, etc, which allowed us to evaluate repetitive movements, but in positions, and forgive the repetition, with movements that are repetitive, applicable to industry but with strong limitations in jobs that are more varied.

A special mention is deserved by the study of Manual Handling, with a methodology focused on an almost impossible position, such as manipulating a single weight under the same conditions.

It could be that for these reasons ergonomics has become the “ugly duckling” of safety? It’s something that I dare not say, although I do think about it.

There is also good news, such as the development of the INSHT ergonomics website, the proliferation of programs such as those developed by Ergo IBV for determining the ergonomic risk carried out with great efforts in incorporating risk assessment, postures and/or the manipulation load as sets of tasks rather than isolated tasks.

The most likely defect, which is based on old methodologies that do not address emerging realities such as the progressive ageing of the population, exactly when this ageing should be the main driver of a proper ergonomic analysis and the objective of the work. In fact, there is some evidence that a correct position according to the method, does not cause disruptions for 20 years of working life, for example.

If we really want be ergonomic, we must learn to value it, not from a standpoint of “method”, which in fact in some cases results in an intolerable result in tolerable jobs precisely due to this variability in work. If in addition to analysing all the subtasks of a position from a global perspective, by asking workers what acts or works they find most painful, we can act effectively in the design of the work position (and if we have the participation of workers, we guarantee its acceptance) and we would be in a position of advantage in something that we cannot forget, which is the awareness of workers to avoid harmful postural habits.

It is perhaps a risky opinion, but ergonomic analysis methods remain being if the position is “legal” or not, with many limitations on top of that. If we want our company to become healthy, responsible for the betterment of society now and that it fully takes advantage of the potential of its workers, we must avoid the obstacle in the practice of ergonomic study (it is necessary, I will not deny it) which indicates parameters for the non-injuring positions without going beyond those parameters.

 

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