Demonstrating payback on safety programs is an ongoing challenge for many safety professionals. Showing the value of an ergonomics program and individual workplace improvements is a part of that challenge, especially when only the traditional lagging measures are used.

Typical Cost Justification Methods

There are many business reasons to support an ergonomics initiative. Three typical primary justification drivers include regulatory compliance, health and safety performance, and production enhancement.

Regulatory Compliance

Although there is currently no federal ergonomics standard, ergonomics still falls under OSHA's General Duty Clause, which states that every employer must provide "a safe working environment for their employees." There are also some states that have state plans specific to ergonomics, such as California. In addition, other states are currently in the process of looking to establish state plans, like the Michigan Ergonomics Standard. Still others have taken voluntary action, such as Minnesota's Ergonomics Task Force and Oregon's Ergonomics Stakeholder Group. OSHA has also issued guidelines for certain industries (e.g., poultry processing and patient handling), but these are voluntary guidelines, not regulatory guidelines. Outside of the U.S., there are European and Non-European Union guidelines and standards, such as the EN ISO 12100, an ergonomic design standard for machinery, and the ISO standards 5349: 1:2001 and 2:2001, which address vibration exposure.

Health and Safety Performance

Business managers know that health and safety performance is an important element in maintaining a well trained, motivated workforce. The financial benefit of reduced workers' compensation costs related to WMSDs can be substantial. The figure below shows approximate averages for three types of WMSDs as reported by various data sources in the U.S. (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2002; National Safety Council, 2001; Health and Safety Executive, 2001).

(Chart in full paper)

Historically, ergonomics has always had a positive impact on health and safety. We know this by looking at the savings in terms of direct and indirect costs. It is estimated that the ratio of indirect to direct costs is 4:1 (MacLeod, 1995), and this is often visualized using the "Iceberg" analogy (for every &1 of direct costs above the water, there are at least &4 of indirect costs below the water). Direct costs are those that can be tracked to a WMSD incident. Examples include:

  • medical costs

  • workers' compensation payments

  • insurance premiums

Indirect costs are often hidden, and increase when WMSDs occur. Examples include:

  • time to manage and treat WMSDs

  • costs to recruit and train replacement workers

  • overtime or lost productivity

The limitation of using regulatory compliance and health and safety performance as the principle drivers of justifying return on investment is that these models are typically founded on lagging metrics. Compliance and safety performance are visible but lack reliability.

Production Enhancement

Productivity and value-added improvements have proven to be the most straightforward means of cost justifying ergonomic improvements. Productivity is measured at the workstation level, so it fits easily into typical cost justification processes.

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