By Dale Kennedy
I am often asked whether there is a need for Ergonomics in the workplace. Employers often feel that the services we provide, as Ergonomists, are ahead of our industry needs. That said, the Department of Labour (DoL) is currently working on Ergonomics regulations with the formalization of a Technical Committee in 2013 to address these regulations. One of the first presentations regarding the ergonomic regulations was given by Bulelwa Huna from the DoL at the Ergonomics Society of South Africa’s general AGM meeting in November 2014 titled “The development of ergonomics for South Africa.” The DoL have further published an ergonomics poster available from the DoL or it an be downloaded from our website; http://ergomax.co.za/downloads/ergonomics-poster-sa.jpg
The challenges we face in South Africa is that we are unique in that we have a multi-cultural, often 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”. Companies have to start considering 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 ensures that the safety of the employee is considered within the scope of a Health and Wellness programme by reducing employee exposure to muscular-skeletal disorder risk factors.
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 for example. If an employee can complete a given task with less muscular force and less physiological effort, when compared to the historical alternative, 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 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 growing body of research looking at “sedentary Physiology” and how prolonged inactivity is damaging to our health.
So to answer the initial 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. However the Ergonomics level of application is the key. Simple risk assessments will go a long way in helping to reduce injuries and introducing ergonomics to your company.
So to reflect for a moment what is currently happening in South Africa in terms of Ergonomics. The DoL, as mentioned, has commissioned a Technical Committee to address Ergonomic regulations. There is already compensation legislation covering Work-related Upper Limb Disorders. Our Construction regulations are in place and Ergonomics is a component of this. In addition the Green Building Council of South Africa has Ergonomics credits as part of the recently launched “Green Interiors Toolkit”. Added to this, I have just received my Certified Professional Ergonomist (CPE) certification, the FIRST person in South Africa. So the formalisation of “competent persons” to complete ergonomics is currently being developed along with the Ergonomics Regulations.
Dale Kennedy CPE (M.Sc. Ergonomics)
Dale Kennedy is a Graduate Member of Saiosh and Ergomax is a Corporate Member of Saiosh