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30/09/2021

Tackling MSDs together: Why a participatory approach to ergonomics is best

Managers do not have the answers to all occupational safety and health (OSH) problems and the people who best understand the hazards of the job are often the workers. Employers have a duty to consult workers on the prevention of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), however for best results, workers need to actively participate in assessing risks, devising and implementing possible solutions, and evaluating their impact.

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Participatory ergonomics is a two-way process between employers and workers or their representatives. It is a holistic process that helps to develop effective ways of recognising and tackling MSDs together. Successful participatory ergonomic interventions are structured as an equal dialogue, which involve learning from and acting upon what is discussed, looking for and sharing views and information, considering everyone’s opinion, and respecting one another.

Participatory ergonomics aims to maximise the input of the worker in a systematic way at all stages of the intervention in order to make the most of their expertise. For workers, this process is empowering –it provides them with ownership of the solutions, making the solutions more acceptable to the entire workforce.

However, the benefits of active participation are not restricted to the worker alone – there are positives for the employer too. Apart from legal compliance, the benefits for the employer include increased quality and productivity in outputs, plus the fact that involving workers in the process ensures that MSD risk assessments are fit for purpose and any subsequent prevention measures are effective. It’s also more cost-effective since managers are alerted to the problems, risks and hazards during the design process, making the implementation of recommendations or new processes smoother and more effective. Workers who know the job are more likely to find the most cost-effective and practical solutions.

How to carry out participatory ergonomics

For it to be effective, businesses need to consider a number of points when implementing a participatory ergonomic intervention. First, businesses should consider who should be involved in the process. Apart from the worker doing the tasks, supervisors, human resources, OSH technicians, ergonomists, or technical specialists such as maintenance personnel, engineers and skilled tradespeople could be included.

Next, participants should have their roles and responsibilities clearly agreed upon, and the parameters of the intervention should be decided to ensure that the practice is efficient, focused and impactful.

Those involved in the project may need training in their role, or in MSD risk factors and prevention in general. Champions and team leaders may need additional training. Various tools and useful materials may be used, such as checklists, risk assessments and guides to body and hazard mapping exercises.

The process itself should have three clear steps:

  • Investigating/identifying MSD-related hazards and determine causes;
  • Developing preventive measures that eliminate or reduce risks; and
  • Implementing consensus solutions and continuously monitoring them.

It is important to allow the group to make decisions about which problems to address and ensure that everyone is listened to. This is especially important as some workers may have unique insights into hidden hazards or risks with gradual effects – such as specific tasks that involve unnatural or static positions, or a disproportionate amount of sedentary work.

Finally, employers need to be committed to providing the necessary time and resources for the participation and implementing the solutions.

What does participatory ergonomics look like in practice?

One example of participatory ergonomics that improved safety and benefited both workers and employers comes from an installation company. The company – which had over 7,000 employees – was struggling with incidents of sick leave caused by the musculoskeletal workload during maintenance and construction operations.

The company applied a participatory approach to solve the problem. Representatives from all elements of the business took part in group sessions in which participants were asked to identify the tasks involving the greatest workloads and propose solutions. One of the solutions involved buying nearly 140 devices to ease the musculoskeletal strain. These solutions were then successfully tested during operations – seven out of nine devices were used on a daily basis. Knowledge sharing was also encouraged so that all workers understood the ergonomic risks and how to tackle them. In an evaluation questionnaire, workers reported that the reduction in musculoskeletal load was ‘good’ or ‘very good’ and they were satisfied with what had been done. What’s more, the project achieved cost-effectiveness within one year.

Active participation can be implemented in virtually any sector or company and can yield impressive results for everyone. It provides access to a broader range of knowledge and insight, allowing employees to draw on their experience and raise their concerns about potential risks, making preventing MSDs more effective. For more information, visit the Healthy Workplaces Lighten the Load website and follow the campaign on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.