“Good ergonomics is good economics”

2021-04-08

I first heard this expression out of the lips of Hal Hendrick, in a keynote speech he gave in a Brazilian Ergonomics conference held in Rio de Janeiro Brazil. Today, decades later, this is a short message that still carries a trigger to action and is raising awareness of the benefits that can be reaped from ergonomics improvements.

There are synergies between legislation in work environment, the cost benefit ratios of ergonomics improvements and integration of ergonomics in management systems, such as the systematic work environment work. Sweden is one of the countries with the most progressive work environments in the world, tied to supportive regulation this has set generally high standards for work environment. However, there is still space for further improvements, especially in broadening the understanding of the cost benefit ratio of ergonomics improvements. Good ergonomics is good economics, springs from an understanding which goes beyond the short-sighted view of short-term benefits and spreads into the savings on indirect costs and into long-term benefits.

In a class discussion with civil engineer students in industrial Product Realization, they brought up a number of examples from their own personal experience that support the timeless statement from Hal Hendrick.

In an express delivery company where one participant (Eric Petersson) worked, an improvement was made in ergonomics that led to significant savings – fitting rolling conveyors for sorting parcels to delivery vans. This meant that delivery drivers no longer had to manually move the parcels one by one to their delivery van, reducing the carrying path from 35 meters to 3 to 4 meters. This led to a 15 minute reduction in the time spent sorting packages at the beginning of the shift, and meant also that more packages could be delivered per van. From an individual driver perspective, it was less taxing on the body and fatigue decreased a lot after the improvement, which meant that the beginning of the delivery round, the drivers were no longer fatigued from the intensive carrying.

While there are several synergies evident in the articulation between legislation in work environment, the benefits of ergonomics and systematic work environment improvement, there are also opportunities remaining to be seized for advances. Hence, raising awareness of the benefits that ergonomic improvements can bring not only for companies and individuals but also for society at large is in the path that lies ahead.

When acting from a reactive stance, a company could waste a lot of resources, in terms of opportunity costs, by not being proactive. A participant (Petrus Hultgren) relating to his experience emphasized how injuries caused by poor ergonomics can lead to high levels of staff turnover and long sick leaves, representing a common symptom of a reactive approach. What this approach also usually leads to is to have to incur in many apparently hidden costs, which if considered from the start, would offset the investment in improved ergonomics. Such indirect costs of poor ergonomics include those involved in recruiting new personnel, the training that they undergo, as well as sick leave payment and even the possibility of having to pocket the results of legal action initiated by injured employees.

We can also see from this example how the costs extend to society as well, especially when it comes to disability and long-term sickness, which in many cases could have been avoided in the first place by working proactively in workplace ergonomics improvement processes.