Neal Whitt may not be a safety professional but he is a high-level Ergonomics Leader. Neal is Area Manager (of three departments) at US Steel's Granite City plant. As you might imagine in a steel production facility, Neal's experienced workers engage in highly physical work that have real potential for fostering cumulative trauma disorders.

One of Neal's areas, the Brick Department, went from the worst safety record in the corporation to the best one after implementing a system for soft tissue injury prevention that increased workers' physical skills and placed them in control of their own ergonomic safety. Total injuries (first aid, OSHA recordables, lost work) went from 44 to 1 (with no lost work injuries since 2002).

As important, morale and productivity rose as well—which wasn't a coincidence. I'll discuss below some of the principles Neal applied that led to his breakthrough results.

Corporate-wide systems have also reported significant successes following these same principles.

Redesigning Perspective

For purposes of this article, I'll assume you know about basic ergonomic design principles and have already applied many of those methods and reaped some results. (If not, that's the first place to start.) But even many organizations that have implemented a range of ergonomics initiatives still may have opportunities for further improvements.

Reflecting on the state of ergonomic injury reduction in his Fortune 500 company, the then- National Ergonomics Manager confided, "We've picked off the low-hanging fruit in ergonomics." He explained that his company, with capable design experts working in concert with purchasing specialists, and ergonomists seeking and making environmental and tool changes, had reduced ergonomic-related injuries soft tissue strains/sprains, vibration-related problems and others. But not past a certain degree; they then found themselves on an ergonomic plateau, perplexedly stranded on a mesa of diminishing returns.

But when design and redesign have been cost-effectively applied, when extreme high-exposure jobs been changed or even minimized yet you're still at a point of unacceptable injuries—what can you do?

Consider applying a strategic leadership approach to ergonomics. Let's look closer at what this entails.

I think of leadership as the art and science of attaining beneficial, planned results by working with and through other people.

Ergonomics literally means the science of work or energy. The Cambridge Dictionary Online explains ergonomics as "the scientific study of people and their working conditions, especially done in order to improve effectiveness."

My working definition of ergonomics is "the art and science of improving the fit between people and their tasks."

This definition logically opens up three strategies:

  1. Bring tasks closer to people, by design, redesign, tool and equipment modifications, effective purchasing.

  2. Bring people closer to their tasks, elevating ergonomic behavior by improving attention, perception, judgment, planning, forward thinking and a set of physical skills for avoiding forces entering and mounting in the body, to reduce likelihood of weardown.

  3. Bring tasks closer to people WHILE bringing people closer to their tasks. Some definitions tend to limit ergonomics to the realm of design.

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