Team evaluates participatory ergonomic programs

A unique partnership involving workplaces, researchers and health and safety experts is tackling a problem in electrical and utilities companies that concerns many workplaces: musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).

The majority of lost-time claims in Ontario’s electrical and utilities sector are for injuries to muscles, tendons and other soft tissues, also known as MSDs. To help find effective ways to prevent this problem, six Ontario electrical and utilities companies are involved in a study of participatory ergonomic (PE) programs in their workplaces. In PE programs, workers are educated and actively involved in choosing solutions to reduce their risk of developing MSDs. For these programs to work, two key factors are critical for success: buy-in from management and employees, and active participation, both of which we have, says IWH Scientist Dr. Phil Bigelow, who is leading the program’s evaluation.

The program – initiated by one of the partnering organizations, the Electrical & Utilities Safety Association (E&USA) – is unique as it leverages expertise and resources of the utilities, and of the IWH and the Centre for Research Expertise in the Prevention of Musculoskeletal Disorders (CRE-MSD). To employers, the benefits of programs are not always obvious, particularly as they must invest time and money. This is one important rationale for evaluating the program. Additionally, the research partners have an interest in finding out how best to use their scarce resources in reducing the burden of work-related MSDs in Ontario. Evaluation provides a way to see the actual impact of a program, says Bigelow. We can look at outcomes that are of interest to workers, such as improved health and well-being, as well as to employers, such as improved productivity, less absenteeism and lower workers’ compensation costs. The unique partnership is also an important focus of the evaluation, because if it is shown to be successful it would be a model for engaging small- and medium-sized firms in MSD prevention programs.

An IWH systematic review, which examined all of the published studies on participatory ergonomics, found some evidence that PE programs can reduce symptoms, injuries, compensation claims and lost work days. The current project has a specific focus on problems in the electrical and utilities sector, with the participation of utilities in Ottawa, Thunder Bay, Kingston, Kitchener-Waterloo, and the Hamilton/St. Catharines region.

Before the PE program began, employees were asked about physical demands in their job, pain and discomfort and any work limits due to MSDs. To implement the program, ergonomists with the E&USA provided training and consultation to ergonomic change teams at the companies. These teams consist of eight to 12 employees who work together to implement solutions in their companies. Each team followed steps in the Participative Ergonomic Blueprint (available at www.iwh.on.ca, under Products & Publications). It is an approach to establishing a PE program as part of a firm’s health and safety program. The blueprint was developed by researchers at the University of Waterloo and IWH. As part of the partnership, ergonomic change teams communicate with one another and share best practices to address common ergonomic risks. Workers are being interviewed again at nine and 18 months after the program began to see if there are changes and improvements. The researchers will also look at records of first-aid reports, injuries, compensation claims and modified work three years before the program and two years after.

Source: At Work, Issue 50, Fall 2007: Institute for Work & Health, Toronto