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Published: Summer, 2005; Vol 7, Num 2

Origins of Ergonomic Science:

 

Contention over Ergonomics has Deep, Historic Roots

 

Not surprisingly, the roots of today’s broad debate over an ergonomic standard in construction date back to the early years of the last century. 

 

In those days, most construction craft workers learned their skills on the job:  watching other workers, serving as apprentices and developing their own methods and styles of work.  Output varied substantially from worker to worker.  Often, work was dangerous but safety programs were non-existent.  Generally, it was a worker’s responsibility to take care of himself on the job.  If a worker was injured, he was readily replaced – without company compensation or support.  Naturally, in addition to hostile battles over wages, hours, pace and layoffs, fights over safety were bitter and never-ending.

 

Ergonomics, as we know it today, grew out of two movements from that time. 

 

Scientific Management

 

One was the scientific management movement, embodied in the work of Frederick Taylor and Frank Gilbreth.  

 

Taylor began work in the 1880s and through his death in 1915 had a tremendous influence on the way industrial work was organized.  At first independently but later in loose collaboration with Taylor, Gilbreth and his wife Lillian created the micro-motion study, using the new motion picture technology to break down work into basic units that they called “therbligs” (Gilbreth spelled backward). 

 

Taylor and the Gilbreths believed that work could be made more efficient and productive by studying how to best do each task and requiring workers to only use the most efficient method – the “one best way,” as Gilbreth called it.   In effect, they sought to “steal” the insight of the fastest workers and use it to accelerate slower workers.  Their study focused on minimizing unnecessary movements and routinizing work.  They also studied the causes of fatigue and slowed productivity and tried to minimize those factors, also to improve productivity. 

 

In one well-known example, Gilbreth filmed bricklayers and assessed their work.  He then summarized a number of equipment and method adaptations that reduced the number of motions in laying a brick from 18 to four and a half.  His system improved output from 1000 to 2700 bricks per layer per day.

 

Taylor is famous for “Taylorism,” the system he developed for Ford Motor Company to speed up work on the assembly line.  He believed some workers were better suited for particular tasks than other tasks and that workers should be hired, assigned and fired based on how their natural tendencies matched the needs of various, specific tasks.  In addition to equipment and method adaptations, he put a stop watch on workers to measure their compliance with the norms of their assigned tasks.  He was also a pioneer in the establishment of piece work, a compensation system based on the number of units produced in a given time.  Taylor’s methods were so ruthless that they provoked a Congressional investigation.

 

Science of Human Factors

 

A somewhat parallel contribution to ergonomics came with the science of human factors.

 

As technology grew more sophisticated and the consequences of failure increased, designers were pressed to make the technology “accident-proof.”  For example, as the military invested in the air force – which was becoming instrumental in warfare – cockpits needed to be designed so that the pilots did not accidentally hit the wrong switch and create a disaster.  The same problem was confronted in the 1950s, as nuclear power plants came on line.  The plants’ control centers were very complicated, with numerous dials, and human factors design principles were used to make sure that, in the event of an emergency, the wrong dial was not turned to cause a meltdown (obviously, it didn’t prevent all accidents).  Human factors science is both an engineering and a psychology discipline.  It looks at how the mind approaches and interacts with the machine and then designs machinery appropriately. 

 

Scientific management and the science of human factors each sought to make work more efficient, with less risk of mishaps that might disrupt production.  Though a side effect was improved safety, neither intentionally concerned itself with the well-being of the workforce.

 

Ergonomics

 

In contrast, today’s science of ergonomics is focused on workforce safety, in particular, on preventing musculoskeletal disorders that arise from work.  To that end, ergonomics – like scientific management and the science of human factors before it – studies and endeavors to improve work design, process and productivity.    By studying how work is done, it identifies the risk factors that cause or contribute to musculoskeletal disorders and helps minimize them to reduce the risk of injury. 

 

In ergonomics, the primary goal is the prevention of injuries, but often the justification for implementing ergonomic changes is that productivity will also improve.  Because ergonomic injuries – mostly sprains and strains – are the most common cause of lost work days in production, their elimination will limit disruptions in production, the necessity to hire replacement workers, medical costs and, in the long run, the cost of worker’s compensation premiums for most contractors.

 

As currently practiced, ergonomics also differs from its early predecessors in that worker input is essential on the design of changes as well as in their implementation.  Both employers and their workers must participate in the design and implementation of effective ergonomic solutions. 

If done properly, ergonomic interventions improve jobs and expand skills without routinizing work or eliminating workers. 

 

“Ergonomics is more than a science, it is a process for solving problems,” says LHSFNA Occupational Safety and Health Director Scott Schneider.  “As such, it has tremendous potential to improve both work and profitability.”

 

Ergonomics and Standards

 

Schneider is one of the believers, but ergonomics has plenty of detractors, particularly on the management side.  Some believe workers fake sprain and strain injuries in order to get time off with workers’ compensation.  Others say the cost of efforts to minimize these injuries outweigh the benefits.  Most detractors agree on one thing:  it should be left to each contractor to decide how much effort to put into ergonomic injury prevention; ergonomics should not be regulated.  Thus, some have fought ergonomics standards at every turn.

 

More than a decade ago, after years of study and debate, OSHA adopted an ergonomic standard for construction.  Within months, under pressure from business, Congress stepped in to abrogate it.  Under the present administration and OSHA leadership, a new effort to adopt a federal standard is unlikely.

 

Subsequently, the state of Washington prepared to adopt a state standard, but the opposition fired up a ballot initiative to block its implementation.  Since then, no state has indicated interest in creating its own ergonomics standard.

 

More recently, the debate has focused on the adoption of a voluntary standard under the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).  Though ANSI standards are voluntary, they tend to establish norms from which few companies will find it practical to deviate.  Last summer, the ANSI A10 committee – composed of 66 members representing each of the construction craft unions and all the major contractor associations – narrowly defeated a proposed standard developed by its ergonomics subcommittee.  Though it won a majority, the proposal did not get the two-thirds required for adoption, in part because many members did not vote.  When it was re-voted last November, it won two-thirds of the vote, but heavy lobbying by industry groups shifted a few votes before the results were certified, and it again went down in a narrow defeat.  The subcommittee is now considering modifications to the standard which it hopes can broaden support for a vote later this summer or fall.  If that votes fails, the issue cannot be raised again in ANSI for at least three more years.

 

Though the issue of a standard is clearly contentious, more and more employers recognize that ergonomic injuries are a significant drain on their profitability.  Thus, within their own company safety programs, they are paying more attention to interventions that promise to limit these injuries, many of which are involve planning and housekeeping arrangements that are inexpensive to implement.  Workforce training is another option.  The LHSFNA Occupational Safety and Health Division is a resource to participating employers who would like explore cost-saving options in the area of ergonomics.