Ergonomics case study: Car parts manufacturer realizes benefits of PE program

An Ontario manufacturer opened its doors to researchers who helped implement a participatory ergonomics (PE) program to improve the musculoskeletal health of workers. The company has since learned that the PE program saved it almost a quarter-of-a-million dollars — and in the most unexpected place.

Participatory ergonomics (PE) can be cost-effective for a firm. Just ask the auto parts plant in central Ontario that set up a PE program — a process that brings workers, supervisors and other key workplace personnel together to identify and solve problems to reduce the risk of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). The firm discovered, through an economic evaluation by the Institute for Work & Health (IWH), that it saved about 10 times more than it spent on the program — to the tune of almost $245,000.

It indicates that PE can play a role in both primary and secondary prevention in the workplace, says IWH Scientist Dr. Emile Tompa, who led the economic evaluation, a process that looks at the costs and consequences of an occupational health and safety program. In other words, it can be effective in not only reducing injuries, but also reducing the severity of injuries when they do occur.

Worksite team follows PE Blueprint

The firm’s journey began in 2001. The 175-employee company, which manufactures foam parts for vehicle interiors, took part in a PE intervention study led by IWH Adjunct Scientist Dr. Richard Wells, director of the Centre for Research Expertise for the Prevention of Musculoskeletal Disorders (CRE-MSD) at the University of Waterloo.

An ergonomics change team was set up to implement the program at the worksite. The team included worker representatives from all shifts, a union and a corporate health and safety representative, a mechanical engineer, the production manager, the tooling supervisor, human resources representatives, and a person from the research team. Following the steps outlined in the how-to guide Participative Ergonomic Blueprint (available at www.iwh.on.ca/pe-blueprint), the team identified and prioritized potential ergonomic changes based on departmental injury rates, worker suggestions, worker pain reports, and production and quality issues.

Over the next 11 months, the team introduced 10 physical changes to the plant. They included five easier-to-implement “fast track” changes, such as installing anti-fatigue matting to reduce leg and back fatigue, and fabricating a 45-degree angle on a tool to reduce wrist flexion. They also included five more-involved “full process” projects, such as installing platforms to reduce low-back stressors and changing a packing protocol to reduce above-shoulder work.

Wells’ research team concluded that the PE program reduced exposures to MSD risk factors. But what about the cost-effectiveness of the PE program? How did the company fare on that front?

Duration on STD/LTD drops

That’s where Tompa and his team came in with the economic evaluation of the program. They calculated program costs of $24,400, including the time and money spent on training, meetings, change implementation, ergonomics expertise and equipment.

They then looked at the number and duration of workers’ compensation claims, modified work cases, first-aid-only injuries, short- and long-term disability (STD/LTD) claims and casual absences before and after the PE program was introduced. As reported in the first 2009 issue of Journal of Safety Research (vol. 40, issue 1, pp. 41-47), significant reductions were seen in only one measure — the length of time workers spent on STD/LTD benefits. That figure went down by 52 per cent, representing a savings of about $244,420 over 23 months.

All in all, the findings indicate how important it is for companies to look beyond workers’ compensation costs when determining the economic benefits of prevention programs. The benefits of a PE program can surface in many places within a company, Tompa points out. This is especially the case with MSDs, which often arise from the interplay of personal, workplace and non-workplace risk factors.

For summaries of this and other IWH research, visit: www.iwh.on.ca/research-highlights. For information on a guide to making PE prgorams successful, go to www.iwh.on.ca/at-work/57/pe-guide.

Source: At Work, Issue 57, Summer 2009: Institute for Work & Health, Toronto