Why Should Ergonomics be Businesses’ Next Imperative?


A viewpoint by Anca Mocan, Lead Consultant at Amaris Consulting.

As a science, ergonomics is a lot more developed in research environments than in factory settings. In almost every client setting I’ve worked at, while ergonomics was implemented to the best legal standards, it was always that and nothing more. I think part of the reason why it is viewed as a ‘legal and union requirement’. It’s seen as something companies must comply with in order to do business.

Since ergonomics can be a clunky topic and is very regulated, managers may not take time to really think about it; the law already takes care of it.

I want to look at why that’s not a good idea; ergonomics should be thoroughly considered due to the benefits it can bring for employee well-being and its potential to reduce operational costs.

What is ergonomics?

Ergonomics has existed in some shape or form since the beginning of time. From an industrial point of view, the solidifying of ergonomics as a science came along with the creation of scientific management at the beginning of the 19th century.

The word itself comes from the Greek ‘ergos’, meaning ‘work’, and ‘nomos’, meaning natural law, and was defined as a study by W.B. Jastrzebowski in 1857. The discipline of ergonomics started off with a very broad scope, analyzing almost the full extent of human activity both inside and outside of work 1,2. Today, ergonomics supports the design of the workplace and surrounding environment so that it matches the needs, abilities, and limitations of the people working in it3.

Why should we care about ergonomics?

Some think of ergonomics as related to muscle and bone issues. While that is certainly true, psychological issues like stress and job dissatisfaction can potentially lead to even more problems in the long run4. In a nutshell, we should care about ergonomic problems and poor work organization because they can help workers avoid health problems, and the resulting absenteeism.

The history of ergonomics

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) have been linked to specific types of work for hundreds of years. Bernardini Ramazzini, who is considered the father of occupational medicine, was the first to notice a link between working conditions and certain diseases. In his 18th century book, he said that these diseases “arise from three causes: first constant sitting, the perpetual motion of the hand in the same manner, and thirdly the attention and the application of the mind”.

Industrialization has meant more attention has been given to the relation between work and health as people started to think about introducing measures to reduce work fatigue. Worker efficiency  has been continuously improved upon since the 1900s, gaining traction over the past few decades in particular.

With the rise in globalization and digitalization in the 1990s, new terms such as ‘situation awareness, mental workload, and virtual reality’ started to appear, and soon we started hearing about complexity management and cognitive systems development. The 1990s were heralded as the decade of cognitive and organizational ergonomics. When that didn’t happen at the speed expected, the point was raised again in 2000, saying that “the need for a broader systems perspective in addressing ergonomics challenges has not yet been found”6,7,8.

Although linked closely to the Industrial Revolution, ergonomics, like all sciences, has not evolved as fast as scientists hoped it would. In fact, there is also a downward trend throughout the years, showing that less attention has been given to the topics in the past decade and a half, stabilizing after the financial crash of 2008 and making little progress since.

The mismatch between science and business

Despite the abundance of ergonomic solutions currently in development, the question of why operational managers and engineers have not kept up with recent research developments remains.

The answer could lie in several areas, such as ineffective translation of theory to practice9, inadequate design of training programs, or even the communication of new discoveries not being suitable for corporate audiences10. Whatever the reason, the result is a vast difference in ergonomics application maturity levels within the same industries or between similar sized firms of different industries.

Ergonomics in logistics

Many scientists present ergonomics in warehouse logistics as a health and safety aspect; something that must be done to align with the relevant legislation. This is important, but business managers also need to understand the opportunities for competitive advantages that can be gained from its application. Unfortunately, in most of the published research related to this field ergonomics principles are presented at the base level, oversimplifying the information and its implementation 11,12,13,14.

The reason for this oversimplification could be the pressure felt by distribution center managers to apply health and safety measures. Frequently tasked with reducing costs and increasing output speed, short-term thinking leads managers to apply ‘quick-fixes’, superficial and non-integrated solutions15. This view of ergonomics and workers’ safety is limiting both from an educational and a production perspective.

Ergonomics and Industry 4.0: a cost cutting opportunity?

The need for safer, lower-risk workplaces is clear: EU-OSHA and the International Labor Organization estimated that the annual cost related to work-related ill health and injury is costing the European Union 3.3% of its gross domestic product (GDP), or approximately €476 billion, every year.

Within logistics work areas, a large wave of technological advancements has been seen in warehousing, materials handling, and packaging. Activity within logistics settings, such as product modification, assembly, handling, or manipulation, can be manual, fully automated, or somewhere in between. Thanks to the recent Industry 4.0 mindset of optimization and efficiency creation, ergonomic developments are being seen less as ergonomics for ergonomics’ sake and more as an opportunity for cost savings and operational streamlining facilitators.

It’s clear that ergonomic system implementation increases productivity, and this will inevitably translate to higher returns. Average warehouse sizes are between 2,000 and 4,000 m2, and warehousing activities account for between 2% and 5% of the cost of a company’s sales. Improved warehouse efficiency will therefore lead to significant cost reductions for all businesses with inventory storage requirements in the long-term16.

This is achieved via a reduction of picking and transportation time due to a reduction in the number of errors and amount of effort put into these activities. Reduced throughput also leads to less time in the warehouse, higher turnaround of stock, and more efficiently used warehouse space. Studies have shown that investment in ergonomic improvements can produce a return on investment ranging from 3:1 to 15:1” 17,18. In some cases, ergonomics adjustments led to productivity increases of up to 15%.

There is clear proof that cost reduction via ergonomics is possible, not just by reducing the cost of injury, but also by redesigning the way in which the work is done. This is being taken to the next level by the implementation of Industry 4.0 solutions within the supply chain. This is fertile ground for improvement and investment, which is good news for both workers and companies’ bottom line.

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1. Karwowski, W. (1991). Complexity, fuzziness, and ergonomic incompatibility issues in the control of dynamic work environments. Ergonomics, 34(6), 671-686.

2. Karwowski, W. (2005). Ergonomics and human factors: the paradigms for science, engineering, design, technology, and management of human-compatible systems. Ergonomics, 48(5), 436-463.

3. https://www.iea.cc/

4. Niu, S. (2010). Ergonomics and occupational safety and health: An ILO perspective. Applied ergonomics, 41(6), 744-753.

5. “The Science of Labor and Its Organization” (1919), Józefa Joteyko

6. Helander, M. G. (1997). Forty years of IEA: some reflections on the evolution of ergonomics. Ergonomics, 40(10), 952-961.

7. Moray, N. (2000). Culture, politics, and ergonomics. Ergonomics, 43(7), 858-868.

8. Grosse, E. H., Glock, C. H., Jaber, M. Y., and Neumann, W. P. (2015). Incorporating human factors in order picking planning models: framework and research opportunities. International Journal of Production Research, 53(3), 695-717.

9. Brown Jr, O. (1991). Origins and Development of the concept of Macroergonomics. In Proceedings of the XIth Triennal Congres of The IEA, Paris.Burdorf, A., Derksen, J., Naaktgeboren, B., and van Riel, M. (1992). Measurement of trunk bending during work by direct observation and continuous measurement. Applied Ergonomics, 23(4), 263-267.

10. Harrison, P. D., Martins, M. R., and Tsai, L. W. (2006). An application of the PMBooK maturity model. In Proceedings of the XXVI Brazilian Congress on Production Engineering-Fortaleza, Brazil.

11. https://osha.europa.eu/en/about-eu-osha/press-room/eu-osha-presents-new-figures-costs-poor-workplace-safety-and-health-world

12. Ware, B. F., and Fernandez, J.E. (2014, March 07). Warehouse Ergonomics/Tips and Techniques to Decrease Injury Risk. Retrieved from: https://www.ehstoday.com/industrial-hygiene/warehouse-ergonomicstips-and-techniques-decrease-injury-risk

13. Stone, S. (2015, April 2). Ergonomic Safety Tips for the Warehouse. Retrieved, from: https://www.cisco-eagle.com/blog/2015/04/02/ergonomic-safety-tips-for-the-warehouse/

14. Breunig, M., Kelly, R., Mathis, R., and Wee, D. (2016, April). Getting the most out of Industry 4.0. Retrieved from: https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/operations/our-insights/industry-40-looking-beyond-the-initial-hype

15. Mocan, A., & Draghici, A. (2019a). Automation possibilities in a low rotation warehouse of a Belgian manufacturing plant. A case study. In MATEC Web of Conferences (Vol. 290, p. 02006). EDP Sciences. Retrieved from: https://www.matec-conferences.org/articles/matecconf/pdf/2019/39/matecconf_mse2019_02006.pdf

16. Stone, S. (2017, March 21). Oversimplification: Four Approaches to Guarantee Limited Safety Improvement. Retrieved from: https://www.ehstoday.com/safety-leadership/oversimplification-four-approaches-guarantee-limited-safety-improvement

17. Hwang, H. S., and Cho, G. S. (2006). A performance evaluation model for order picking warehouse design. Computers and Industrial Engineering, 51(2), 335-342.

18. Heller-Ono, A. (2014). A prospective study of a macro ergonomics process over five years demonstrates significant prevention of workers’ compensation claims resulting in projected savings. Evaluation, 30, 90.

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