Ergonomics as a Lever to Improve Safety, Quality, Productivity, and Employee Engagement with Carrie Taylor
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According to OSHA, implementing an ergonomic process is effective in high-risk industries and increases productivity. Join our conversation with professional ergonomist Carrie Taylor to learn the many benefits of ergonomics in improving overall safety, quality, productivity, and employee engagement in the workplace. Tune in to learn strategies to drive impact and success in implementing proper and safe ergonomics within your organization!
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Hi, and welcome to The Safety guru. Today I’m very excited to have with me Carrie Taylor. Carrie is a certified Ergonomist with 30 years of experience in the space, heads a firm called Taylor Ergonomics. Carrie, welcome to the show.
So, maybe why don’t we get started with a bit of background in terms of ergonomics and how it helps safety, maybe as a starting point.
Sure. Ergonomics is thought of as the art and science of fitting work to people. Most Ergonomists have studied Kinesiology, sometimes psychology. There’s another branch of ergonomics that deals with more cognitive capabilities. But the area where I practice is mostly biomechanics. So, we’re looking at physical size and strength of workers and trying to make sure that workplaces are built with those capabilities in mind.
Sure. And so, what are some of the main benefits of looking at ergonomics in a workplace? And what environments would benefit the most from an ergonomist?
So mainly, ergonomists are employed in the safety sector trying to attack the musculoskeletal disorders or strain sprain injuries that occur in the workplace. So, a good chunk of those, often about half of workplace injuries are related to that mismatch between workers and jobs and creating those musculoskeletal injuries. So, we are often brought in to help with trying to address those injuries. So, in terms of which environments benefit more, I think anyone who’s in a workplace who’s uncomfortable is probably subconsciously thinking about ergonomics and how could I make myself more comfortable. I spent most of my career working with manufacturing, healthcare, offices, distribution, areas where people are working in jobs that are either heavy or repetitive or awkward. Those kinds of hazards are the ones that we’re typically trying to tackle.
Obviously, work environments where it’s repetitive, that makes a lot of sense. What about environments where the work is different? I’m thinking, for example, utility workers that are not in a safe environment day in and day out but are dealing with lifting, they’re moving things, they’re going up holes, so there’s different hazards, or even fireman in terms of coming in and out. What are some of the applications in those environments?
Those are important jobs where economics needs to be considered. They’re much more difficult for us to assess because those things aren’t happening all the time, so they’re harder to see and they’re harder to measure. And it’s harder to wrap your head around how we can fix something that doesn’t happen all the time. But they’re very important hazards to address. Sometimes we can take a different look at them and say, okay, well, maybe it is causing people to be uncomfortable, but maybe there’s other problems that are associated with the mismatch between the worker and the workplace that we can tackle, such as maybe they’re not able to keep up with the pace of… They expect the pace of work, or maybe they’re not able to produce the quality of work that the employer expects.
You’ve recently done some work and some research around linking ergonomics to quality and productivity. Can you share a little bit more in terms of how ergonomics can impact broader organizational metrics such as quality and productivity?
I think it’s important for us as autonomous to start thinking about how else we can cost justify improvement. One of the challenges we find is that there are some cost benefit analysis tools out there that might look at if you’ve got a back injury, it’s costing the organization this many dollars. And so therefore, if you prevent that back injury, you’re going to save money over the long run. But what we recognized was that those tools don’t do a good job of estimating the other benefits that ergonomics interventions might have. So, they can’t really help you to say, okay, well, if I improve the quality of work on this job because the person is not working in this awkward sustained posture anymore, how much money will I save the organization by doing that, or if I’m able to make them a little bit faster. So, part of our research project was we wanted to be able to try and build a better tool for factoring those costs in, particularly where the injuries haven’t happened. Maybe they haven’t happened yet because it’s a new facility, or maybe they haven’t been attributed to a specific job because maybe there’s job rotation, or it’s just difficult to get those stats.
But most of the tools that are available only work if there’s injury cost that you can grab onto. And so, we wanted to build a tool through our research project that would help economics and safety professionals and whoever else is trying to implement an economic improvement to capture those other costs and try to build those into a cost justification case.
What are some of the things that an organization can look like in terms of driving the quality productivity, linking it back to to economics? Because I would imagine it can get into a workstation design if you’re in manufacturing in terms of perhaps less movement, more sustainable movements, which can also demonstrate productivity gains. If I’m thinking of, for example, an automotive, it’s very easy to show that shaven a second, or not easy, but once you shave a second, there’s a significant impact on the full production line. So, all of these pieces, is there environments where they have looked at that linkage between quality, productivity, and economics?
There’s a ton of research out there that look at specific case studies and where they’ve been able to make an improvement and capture some cost. But there isn’t a paper that helps you figure out how to do that in your own organization. I can give you three examples where we try, maybe not quantitatively, but that people will be able to relate to. As a quality example, I spent years looking at a job, looking at it, meaning I walked by it and I saw it and I knew it was a problem, but there weren’t injuries there. The job involved inspecting a part. The part was a flat piece that had contours on it, and the worker was responsible for inspecting grooves that were horizontally oriented on the top of this part. So, in order to see the grooves, they had to see if there were components in them and if they were properly placed. In order to see the grooves, they either had to bend over the part on the conveyor as it moved by, or they had to lift the part up and re-orient it so that they could see inside the grooves. Because while they were standing, there was no possible way for them to actually see the components.
So, I knew that there was a lot of neck bending. I knew that they were lifting this part unnecessarily, but there wasn’t a case for it. I couldn’t say there’s a high risk of injury. They were rotating, so they weren’t there all day. And so, after years of saying, why can’t we tilt this conveyor? I just want to tilt this conveyor. And apparently that was a big deal. And the engineering manager said, I carry, we don’t need to. There’re no injuries. It’s not important. I walked into the quality manager, and I said, I think they could do a lot better job of this inspection if the part was tilted towards them. And he said, oh, you know what? We’re actually spending X number of thousands of dollars a month to have a person at our customer’s site, reinspecting those parts because they’re slipping by. I’m like, Wow. After all these years, I just wasn’t talking to the right person. I think that was an example where we could make a big impact if we had just been working with quality more closely and trying to help them understand where it’s a human capability that we’re not designing for. So that was one example. A productivity examples. I’ve been working with a client who has a lot of people doing grinding. So, they’re grinding off long tubes, and its super quality sensitive. So, there’s never going to be a quality issue because they’re going to keep working at it until it’s perfect. So, it’s inspected all the time. But the cost of that quality is that the job is very demanding. So, they’re bending over, they’re running this grinder, they’re pushing really hard. It’s awkward, it’s forceful, and they do it for long periods of time. And so, we started looking into, well, are there better abrasive materials that they could use on these grinding guns that maybe you wouldn’t have to push as hard? And so, we started looking for that, and we brought in some vendors, and they tried some new products, and we found some abrasive materials that reduced the amount of time that it took for them to grind the tubes. And it also took less effort, so they didn’t have to push as hard on the tool. So, we were able to make an economic improvement that had a big impact on the workers’ comfort, but also had a big impact on their productivity because they were able to do the job in less amount of time.
Again, there’s a productivity example, but it wouldn’t have any effect on the quality. The quality was going to be perfect either way because we were going to inspect it and keep doing it until it was right. And the third area where we’re trying to have an impact outside of musculoskeletal disorders is an employee engagement. So, what happens when an employee is working in an uncomfortable position for long periods of time, or they’re doing something that’s heavy and awkward and they’re at risk of developing an injury, they start to become disengaged. They’re not able to work as effectively. They aren’t as happy to be at work. If they’re in customer service, it probably affects their interaction with the people that they’re talking with, their customers. So, I see this right now as a huge opportunity, I guess, for people who are implementing remote work programs. So, in an office environment, we’ve done, to date, a pretty good job of building furniture that’s adjustable. So, we’re sitting in good chairs. Our lumber back is supported. The screens are all height adjustable. The keyboards are adjustable. We’ve gotten to a good point in economics in office environments. But now we send people home and they want to be home, so they’re not going to complain about the work environment.
And so, we’ve been starting to do virtual office assessments for people working in their home offices, and they’re required to send us in a video so that we can see what they’re doing before we work through an assessment with them on a video chat. And what we’ve seen is abominable. People are working at kitchen tables on wooden chairs or on a sofa with a TV table and their arms are fully outstretched. And I think if their supervisors could see them, if we had all these people in an office working in these clusters, we would be awestruck. We would say there’s no possible way that they could work productively in that environment and be engaged and work effectively. But it’s happening and it’s happening all over the place. And I think that eventually these people are going to be in so much pain that they’re not going to be able to get anything done. So, I think there’s another huge opportunity for us there is to try and think about how are we expecting people to work when they’re in a home office environment? And how can we optimize that? How can we help them to be working in an economic environment?
So, I think those are really good examples. I think the first two, really for me, sent a message that it should be ideally part of a continuous improvement process that’s part of quality management, where people are looking at it both from a safety standpoint but also how do I improve the quality of the product that I’m delivering and really looking at it holistically because it sounds like from the opportunities you have or you’ve seen, it’s not just a cost benefit analysis, it’s also how do we improve the overall workflow so that the worker is happier, safer, but also delivering to a better outcome with its quality of productivity.
What can safety organizations do to get closer? Because that tends to be a challenge in many organizations. The two parts are separate, even if there’s a lot of connections. Have you seen some areas of success around this?
I think we must work more closely with engineering. If there is a continuous improvement, a Six Sigma, a Lean program that we need to reach out to those people and offer to collaborate because the problems that they are working on probably are the same types of problems that we’re working on. I think in Canada, most autonomous come in through the safety door. When I’m called for an economic consulting project, it’s usually HR or safety that’s calling me. But we also get calls from engineering. When we’re getting calls from engineering, we know that those changes are going to be implemented because it’s in the engineer’s interest to try and optimize the design of the work. I think with safety, it’s harder because they’re reliant on legislation or injuries in order to be able to justify a change. So, an employer might make a change because it’s the right thing to do. But if it’s an expensive change, it becomes more difficult to justify. Sure.
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Your last example, the one around the economics from home, I’ve seen a lot of organizations implement that at the front end of COVID when people were sent home to do some ergo checks at home because as you mentioned, a lot of people didn’t have the right office environments for it. I think you bring up a good point that people are happy being at home, so they may not necessarily report the discomfort until it’s too late and becomes a significant issue, what are some of the things that organizations can do to get ahead of this? So, you mentioned doing the ergo assessment. I’ve seen some organizations do virtual ergo assessments, not necessarily even with an Ergonomics, but just to show me your workstation, not in a negative way, but just to say, okay, let’s understand what you have and say what you need to invest in your work design to be more productive. Tell me a little bit about some of the things you’ve seen in that area.
I think it’s important to provide employees with training so that they’re able to set up their workstation, but also the resources that they need. So, a lot of employers allowed people to take stuff home from the office at the beginning of COVID, so people brought their chairs home. They might have brought their… If they had a sit stand desk, I know some people have been allowed to take that home, but we need to make sure that people are able to work in a decent posture and get some posture changes during the day and that they feel that if they have a problem, they can reach out and get some help for it. And some organizations offered a budget, so they would say, okay, here you can have $1,000 a year for wellness. But they gave so much flexibility around how that money could be spent that people would spend it on yoga classes and things that are valuable but they’re still sitting on the sofa and working on the TV table. So, I think it needs to be a priority. I think at the beginning, we thought this was temporary, right? So, we all just did what we could to get through it but now it’s become permanent, and I think we can’t have people working at the dining room table permanently.
It’s interesting because a lot of the tools, even standing desk, have become much more affordable for home office compared to before. Because if you think about the ones in the investment and incorporating competent environments that used to be incredibly expensive, but now they’re available in a very tight budget, even in many cases, where there’s different modular elements that people can create. There’s a lot more options.
Yeah, there is. There’s a lot of products on the market that I wouldn’t recommend as well. A lot of the sit stand desks don’t go low enough for most people. It’s like anything, I guess, supply and demand. There are suppliers out there that are producing cheap quality products that when you buy it, you’re going to be disappointed. But by and large, there are some good products that have come down a lot in price as well. So, it’s become a lot more practical to set up a decent home office.
Sure. Thank you for sharing. You had some good examples in terms of connecting with different parts of the business in terms of how ergonomics has a bigger, broader impact than just on safety. One of the key elements, obviously, in terms of driving safety, but also ergonomics is a supervisor. Tell me a little bit about some of the strategies that can empower supervisors to have a great impact around ergonomics.
We found that supervisors are the middlemen between the workers that know the jobs and management who know the organization but might not have their feet on the floor as much. When we approach organizations trying to look for opportunities to improve ergonomics, we try to approach the supervisors and get some time with them. They’re busy but try to get some time with them to try and understand where the opportunities might be. So, we ask them about what jobs people are trying to post out of. So, if there’s a job that it’s an entry level job and the first opportunity people want out of it, that’s probably a job where there’s economic issues because there’s a reason why people want out of them. And we ask them, where do the mistakes happen? So, if there’s a quality issue, if a defect gets out of your department, or people are making mistakes, or if they’re missing things when they’re inspecting, where is that happening? Because again, perhaps it’s because the job isn’t designed well for them. Where do bottlenecks happen? So, if people are standing around waiting for somebody to finish something, who is it and what are they doing?
Because that might be another opportunity for us to try and fix things. And if there is a job where people are most likely to call in sick, which job is it? That day that such and such a schedule, all of a sudden, you’ve got three people absent and you’ve got to try and cover that. A lot of times, absenteeism is really a better indicator of the ergonomics issues than WSIB type of stats. Those are kinds of things that supervisors will have a better sense of, perhaps in the HR Department or the manager in the department because they are the ones who are having to try and solve those problems.
Absolutely. The other part you mentioned earlier is you did the research project trying to look at quality and economics and productivity and trying to find some of the linkages. Can you share a little bit about some of the findings and learnings from that project?
Yeah. We had a project set up that was partially funded by Sonami, and we were doing it in conjunction with college. Our original goal was to try and find partners, industry partners that would allow us to try to cost justify an ergonomics improvement that they were already working on for another reason, but try and do that based on quality, productivity, and employee engagement metrics. So, the first interesting piece that we learned was that it’s hard to get industry partners to sign up for those kinds of things. Most of our contact people are HR and safety, and so the idea to them, the idea of trying to reach out to their quality and their production people was maybe overwhelming. I don’t know. We don’t really know why we had so much trouble, but we didn’t manage to get enough industry partners to do the project the way we had originally planned to. So that was interesting. So, we pivoted and decided, okay, instead of trying to apply a cost benefit analysis tool, let’s try to build one, build a spreadsheet, and build training around how to use it. So that’s what we did. We created a course for engineers, safety, and ergo people that would help them to identify and quantify those improvements in productivity, quality, employee engagement, so that they’d be able to cost justify an ergonomics improvement.
So, we created this one-day course, and we piloted it. It went really well, so we’re going to be running it again. But it was essentially, we taught them about some of these Lean and Six Sigma tools because part of our research team had some expertise in that area. And then we helped them to apply it and helped them to try and mock up and quantify what would happen if you changed this. So, we used a board game operation, and we helped participants to see, okay, well, I can see that this is an ergonomics issue. If you’ve played the game operation, you know that it involves bending and holding tweezers, and it’s repetitive. And so, we created this situation where they had to quantify what the problems with that were and how productive a surgeon would be in that job and what quality issues, so how many times they hit the buzzer when they were trying to remove the organs. And then we were able to mock up in the workshop some improvements. So, we gave them the ability to change the working height and the reach and lighting and tools and all kinds of things and then mock up and quantify.
And so, it’s through that process of experimentation that they were able to actually put some numbers to how the how the surgeon felt about the job. So, what engagement effects would we have? And how productive was he or she? And how many times did they hit the buzzer or drop an organ when they were transferring it? And so, we were able to build a little spreadsheet that would quantify all of that and help to cost justify an ergonomics improvement using those other metrics. So, we’ve been trying to use it when we have the opportunity within our practice, and we’re looking for obviously more opportunities to use it more and fine tune it. But it’s got a lot of promise, and I think that’s the way we want to go in the future to try and help clients cost justify their ergonomics.
Improvements. sounds good. So, Carrie, thank you for sharing a lot of insights across the spectrum for economics. Important elements from a consideration in terms of safety programs, in terms of where to eliminate, where to go find some opportunities. I’d like your comments around the supervisors and all the way down to home offices and some of the opportunity’s organizations have to make sure that people are working in the right work environment. So, thank you so much for joining me today, Carrie. If somebody wants to get in touch with you. What’s the best way to do that?
Probably through our website, TaylordErgo.com.
Sounds good. Thank you so much. Have a wonderful day.
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ABOUT THE GUEST
Carrie Taylor, M.Sc., CCPE, CPE, R.Kin., Principal Ergonomist
Carrie Taylor launched Taylor’d Ergonomics Incorporated in 1995, after working in the field for several years. Carrie holds an undergraduate degree in Human Kinetics, and a Master of Science degree, both from the University of Guelph. She has attained professional ergonomics certification in Canada (CCPE) and the United States (CPE), and she is also a Registered Kinesiologist. Carrie has experience in many industries, including automotive parts and assembly, food processing, small motors, offices, chemical processing, airlines, nuclear, health care, and many more. Carrie is based in our Cambridge office.
Taylor’d Ergonomics is a team of ergonomists, spread between London and the Greater Toronto Area. Our ergonomists enjoy developing and facilitating training, tackling challenging client projects, and supporting regular ongoing clients with ergonomics programs. Projects include physical and cognitive demands analyses, design reviews, office assessments, best practices and, of course, cost-justification projects.
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