Resources and support are vital in a PE program

Research evidence shows that a participatory ergonomic (PE) program can help prevent musculoskeletal disorders in workers. Yet, what are some key elements of participatory ergonomics that can help ensure its success in workplaces?

A unique systematic review conducted at the Institute for Work & Health (IWH) sheds new light on what can help and hinder workplaces in establishing a successful PE program. In this approach, a team works together to identify risks, and change tools, equipment and work processes to improve workplace conditions. It encourages workers to be involved in building safer and healthier workplaces. This can lead to a decrease in certain risk factors that are related to musculoskeletal disorders, such as low-back pain.

The review found that resources and support from management, supervisors and workers were the most important factors in ensuring a successful PE intervention. This also suggests that management commitment is vital, says IWH Research Associate Dwayne Van Eerd.

An ergonomic team composed of the right mix of people appropriate to the workplace was also important, notes Van Eerd, who led the review. Workers, supervisors and external advisors such as ergonomists were most often identified as those involved in group consultations.

Plus, ergonomic training was an important component. Training was clearly a significant facilitator when it was offered, he says. However, more information on who conducted the training, the length of the training sessions and the frequency could have helped the review team come to a stronger conclusion.

Grey literature used in the review

Van Eerd and his team conducted a comprehensive review of the research to reach these conclusions. Unlike other reviews, they included the “grey literature.” These are publications that are not reviewed by independent experts – or peer-reviewed – the way that scientific journals typically are. Documents that could be systematically searched such as conference proceedings, dissertations and institutional reports were also used.

The grey literature often provided “rich descriptions” of PE processes, facilitators and barriers. Though the processes described in the grey literature were somewhat different than peer-reviewed – for example in the types of changes or team structures – the review team was able to synthesize key aspects across both types of literature. While the grey literature enhanced and supported the findings from the peer-reviewed literature, reviewing both literatures resulted in a comprehensive overview of PE process and implementation.

The review’s results are based on 33 peer-reviewed and 19 grey literature documents. They capture many PE interventions from several countries and across industries and sectors. Most interventions took place in the manufacturing, health-care and construction sectors. However, we feel that the findings reported here about process and implementation should apply to almost any setting or industrialized country, explains Van Eerd.

Major input from OHS experts

A variety of occupational health and safety experts played a key role in this review. In fact, the review team sought feedback from experts from British Columbia, Manitoba and Ontario. More than 70 representatives from health and safety agencies, provincial labour ministries, workers’ compensation boards, labour organizations and workplaces attended meetings. They supplied additional search terms and grey literature sources, proposed ways to present information, and suggested who might be interested in the results.

These experts brought many great ideas and feedback to the table, explains Van Eerd. They helped to shape the final research question, and they encouraged us to use the grey literature.

Source: At Work, Issue 51, Winter 2008: Institute for Work & Health, Toronto