Recent university studies, Comfort Zone data and our corporate ergonomics experience all prove that companies with employees working predominately at computer stations are experiencing 60% to 80% of their employees suffering with significant discomfort and injuries. This is having a deleterious effect on productivity, accuracy, time on task, time at work and morale. This situation is largely hidden by the fact that the related injuries and maladies are being handled through the corporate health care plan and is significantly contributing to the rapid increase in health care costs. The crux of the matter is that most are preventable with a comprehensive Human Sustainability and Performance Management Program.
Furniture And The Employee
Facilities should ultimately be built for the people and tasks they will house. In order to accomplish this in the best way, pertinent data must be gathered and understood on what the jobs and tasks are and what is required to accomplish them to the best means possible. Similar information must also be obtained on the employees. Who are they? Gender, ethnicity social issues and norms, likes and dislikes as well as cultural needs and issues. All of this must be taken into account. This information is then used in designing the facility, spaces, furniture, equipment choices, software design, décor, etc.
Why would ethnicity and gender matter? The most successful comprehensive ergonomics programs are all about the individual. Individuals have a myriad of differences in physical and cognitive aspects, including what their “common” knowledge base is. This knowledge is invaluable for making sure that the workplace, furniture, processes and software work well for all the employees thus significantly reducing training, cognition and help issues. In the physical aspect, the differences in anthropometric measures can be huge. This concept can easily be visualized by the different needs in design for an Anglo population versus a non-Anglo population and of course across all different ethnicities. Flexibility is the key!
This concept was proven in the early 1990s at a financial institution in San Antonio, Texas with a population of 23,000. The furniture was very expensive and very nice. All of the desks were set to 29” high and the chairs were also expensive and high quality. I am 6’-2” and the desks were set too high for me. I am short in my lower leg which is the paramount measure in the setting of desk height for an individual. Most of the employee population was Hispanic female. Most of the employees did not fit the desks (as opposed to the desks fitting them) and many of them also did not fit into the chairs. The chairs were too narrow and too high for many of the local ethnic population.
The heights and sizes were set without a good understanding of the needs of the population that would be using the equipment. At the financial institution, it took years of working with manufacturers to get a good selection of chairs to fit the population and crews were brought in to adjust individual desk heights for the employees. As the program progressed, when the employees were moved around the facility, their specifics were ported to the space management system to ensure that their desk would be set up for them including any special chairs or other ergonomic equipment.
Any project that has set heights of workstations (without other considerations) or that provides only one style chair for all employees is neglecting the ergonomics needs of the employee population, possibly injuring them, and thus significantly impacting the productivity of the organization. Recent studies have shown that up to 80% of computer using employees suffer from discomfort and injuries caused by poorly fitting equipment.
Workstations And The Job
The workstation is where the employee is located and where the job is executed. Without detailed knowledge of the job, tasks and associated processes, inputs and outputs and equipment needs, the workstation design is no more than a guess. The workstation will either be larger or smaller than needed and may not include necessary components or fit the flow of the work or the tasks that will be accomplished there.
Well intentioned and very expensive new workstation projects can easily end in spectacular failure. When a facility was running out of space and more employees on the way in, they had to reduce the size of the workstations to make more room. The design group came up with a design and had it installed for 1000 employees. In their design, they missed several major components but the largest was the fact that these were claims processors and worked with paper file folders. As a result, the employees had to work with the files in their laps bending over to peer at them. This resulted in numerous neck injuries, increased mistakes and severely impacted productivity. Other concerns were the inability to put a wheelchair at a desk and users constantly hitting their chairs, elbows and knees on workstation protrusions. The entire lot had to be scrapped (think cost of workstations, moving in and moving out, disposal and employee and work disruption).
To prevent this from occurring again, the company initiated comprehensive usability studies for each job class to ensure that the workstations would be the best possible fit for the employee and the job. First there were observations and interviews in the field and then a unit sized group was moved into the lab where all work and interactions including the mail moving in and out were analyzed. The desk surfaces were marked for measurement and the space utilized for the work was recorded with an overhead video camera. This data was used to determine size needs. Does this cost some money? Yes, but the cost is insignificant to 1000 scrapped workstations, lost productivity and injuries. And to be sure the biggest cost of all is actually the lost productivity.
While all of the focus appears to be on making people comfortable and reducing injuries the financial incentive, by far, is the increase in employee’s time on the job due to reduced injuries, improved comfort, accuracy, and morale. But and the largest and most significant factor and what pays for it all is the improvement in productivity.
Everything must be reviewed for its impact on human performance. All enterprise programs, processes, initiatives must be analyzed for the human component. When completed at the inception of a project, cost is negligible. When accomplished after the project has been implemented, cost increases exponentially including interfering with ongoing operations. Example: Do the forms used in a process (electronic or paper) make sense to the targeted users or do they wonder, guess and ask about how to complete it? If not designed properly the first time, the user is frustrated, possibly angry, potentially providing wrong answers and takes more time than necessary. This type of problem can result in requiring additional support staff to answer questions or the building of an extensive help feature. Most of this can be engineered out in the beginning through proper data gathering and study. Trying to fix a problem after the fact can include shutting down the existing operation, retraining employees and the rebuilding costs not to mention the issues it may have already caused with customers.
One of the most daunting issues involved with beginning a human performance management program is that it can be overwhelming. There are health and safety professionals out there who once they become aware of the related problems know they are not prepared to handle the onslaught of work, problems and consternation that opening the box will cause. They will need more budget and support to properly handle the situation. The key is to get everyone involved to see this as a corporate issue not just a health and safety issue. This is a corporate opportunity for improvement that is rooted in all parts of the enterprise. All employees and process should ultimately be involved in this program in a fully managed way that rolls out over time in different and fully orchestrated phases.
Many company representatives comment that they do not have the required budget or staff to deal with this big of an issue and are concerned that they will be ostracized when they push the issue up without a full solution. As a result, the productivity keeps flying out the door. But when the realization of how big this issue is hits, remember, what cost is there in the enterprise that is more important and costly than employees and their work?
The Enterprise Human Sustainability Program encompasses all aspects of the issues discussed in a way that reduces costs and program management resources needed. The program is based around a software package (Comfort Zone) that manages the initial roll out by gathering data on the current “norm” in posture and discomfort across the enterprise. The results are displayed through the powerful analytics engine. Training is presented immediately to those with identified concerns and more through targeted emails for more advanced issues.
All aspects have both macro and micro (system wide and individual) considerations:
|Evidence Based Design|
|What is it?|
|What does it require?|
|What is the overall process?|
|Indoor Air Quality|
|Emergency preparedness and response|
|Program monitoring / assessment|
|How is the program doing?|
|Is the system within six sigma control?|
|Are the employees pleased?|
|Employee information and feedback|
|Is training and information available and easy to access?|
|Can employees easily and readily access assistance?|
|Is an employee feedback system in place?|
|Do they see the program as a benefit?|
|Are program components meeting their needs?|
|Are appointments and delivery/install deadlines met?|
|Are system wide response times in control?|
|Is there a staffed employee support and response system in place?|
|Employee concern response|
|Equipment delivery and install|
|Are lessons learned continuously built into the system?|
|The Human Performance Management Program|