I am often asked whether there is a need for Ergonomics in the workplace. Employers often feel that the services we provide, as Ergonomists, is ahead of our industry needs. To a certain degree, they are correct within the context of South Africa which is considered to be a developing country. However, South Africa is unique in that we have a multi-cultural, poorly educated workforce equipped with First World Technology. This is especially true in the construction and forestry industries, which are non-office based. The consequence of this is our labour intensive workforce, using First World Technology, has to meet the demands of fully mechanized First World Output. This creates a situation ripe for Ergonomic related injuries or “Bloodless injuries”. So we have over-worked labourers, often with high injury and absenteeism rates which ultimately affects an organisation’s profits due to labourer downtime. Companies have to consider how profits are being undermined by these types of injuries. Many of my clients cannot answer this simple question, “What is the task asking of the worker?” They are very quick to give out production output data, i.e. what the worker has to do, but the output figure has direct roots in financial reasoning and not human capability reasoning.
Ergonomics helps organisations to consider output differently. Initially, a return on Ergonomics programs is often difficult to quantify, as the return of investment is based indirectly in the form of lower compensation claims and reduced injuries etc. If an employee can complete a given task with less muscular force and less physiological effort, when compared to the historical means, then they can complete more in a given time period with less fatigue and a reduced risk of injury. Obviously output will increase, and injuries will, more than likely reduce. The impact on the bottom line becomes self-evident.
The need for Ergonomics is not limited to industries, the office environment is fast becoming a source for increased injuries and compensation claims. Why? We assume that everyone has the relevant skills to work with computers. Think about the following: How many employees work with computers in your organisation? How many of these employees can touch type (i.e. typing without looking at the keyboard)? You will be astounded THAT this is the major problem. There is a mismatch between what we are able to do and what the task is asking us to do. Want to improve office productivity? Send all your employees on a typing course!
The other major office theme is that office work dictates that the majority of employees are required to remain stationary for prolonged periods. What happens to a car that is parked and not moved for a long period? It slowly rusts and breaks down; the same principle can be applied to the human body and office work. Often, employers dismiss office Ergonomics as a soft solution, but think about what it meant to file a document 15 years ago and what it means today. Today we sit, and we sit and then we sit some more. As a consequence, many employees are slowly being hurt, and research is now looking at ways to make employees more active in the office, from standing desks to treadmill desks to standing meeting rooms. There is a reason for all of this.
So to answer the question, ‘Is Ergonomics absolutely critical to South African industry?’ ‘Yes, it is’. Ergonomics is probably the best scientific application that can fill the gap between Third World Labour and First World Technology. The Ergonomic level of application is the key. Simple risk assessments will go a long way in helping to reduce injuries.
Consider for a moment what is currently happening in South Africa in terms of Ergonomics in the workplace. The Department of Labour has commissioned a technical committee to address Ergonomic regulations. There is already compensation legislation covering Work-related Upper Limb Disorders. Our Construction regulations are being reviewed and Ergonomics is a component of this. In addition, the Green Building Council of South Africa has Ergonomics credits and has recently launched the “Green Interiors Toolkit”.
Considering all this, are we as Ergonomic consultants ahead of the game, absolutely not, we are in the middle of it!