Why Priority Matters For In-House Ergonomics Programs

This article was developed with the intention of providing some value to those who manage their workplace’s own ergonomics program.

This tip can save you from making mistakes (that can cost you!) in your ergonomics program.

I’ve found that most people who run their own workplace’s ergonomics program need to establish a way to get to the people who actually need their help. I’ll clarify what I mean by this later in this post. If you are managing ergonomics on top of your regular job duties you’ll have to be especially diligent with your time. The main reason that most workplaces have in-house ergonomic program is to stop injuries from occurring in the office in the first place. For this to be successful you will definitely need to address your colleague’s discomfort using some sort of system.

But, here’s the thing. You still have your normal job responsibilities to fit into your day too. In order for ergonomic assessments to not feel like a chore you need a way to optimize your time to get you a lot of bang for your buck without it taking all of your energy. Not addressing priority may lead to overwhelm and burnout (worst case scenario.. but it can happen!).

Here’s what I did.  

When I managed my own in house ergonomic program I was acting as the sole ergonomist for a very large organization. We’re talking thousands of employees. And, not only was I responsible for office ergonomics, but also for any type of function when it came to ergonomics for the entire organization including industrial, return-to-work and work hardening programs, and of course office ergonomics. Most of the time I was juggling multiple initiatives just barely finding time to fit in office ergonomic assessments. 

So, I quickly found out that to be successful in office ergonomics I had to address the people who most needed office ergonomic assessments in an efficient and effective way. Looking back it just seems so obvious. To do this I had to get through the ‘noise’, let me explain what I mean.

There were 2 WAYS how I got connected with people for assessments. These were: 

  1. People who ‘self-identified’ that they needed to have an ergonomic assessment and contacted me. These people took initiative. This could be because they either had enough discomfort to warrant them taking action or it could’ve been from a more proactive prospective (maybe they were a new hire or just relocated offices).
  2. People had no idea that their discomfort was at a level that required an immediate intervention (aka ergonomic assessment) and didn’t contact me. I would normally hear about their discomfort after an injury had occurred, from that point we would schedule an ergonomics assessment. These were usually the more severe type of assessment.

As I mentioned, overtime I found a process that would allow me to get to the people who really needed ergonomic assessments. Below is the process that I used.

No matter what, before an ergonomic assessment was completed there needed to be a Discomfort Survey that was signed, sealed, and delivered to me. It was the most efficient use of my time and an effective way that I found to manage my ergonomic program – and trust me I did a lot of trial and error to get it down to this. Not only does this address the PROACTIVE side of ergonomics, but also the REACTIVE (after the injury or discomfort has already started).

Here’s how the process worked: all employees would complete the Discomfort Surveys either from our intranet or from Discomfort Surveys that were delivered directly to them. If you are looking at doing something like this, I would suggest using some sort of timeline to get the surveys back to you- otherwise ergonomics can get shifted to the back burner in your workplace.

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How To Determine Priority

After I received the completed Discomfort Surveys in a particular area, I would then look at the table below to figure out how important it was for me to see that person immediately. The table below does a really good job of sorting out various indicators and what that means for their risk of injury, and consequently what their level of priority is. Here is just a snapshot of how to read this table:

  • The HIGHEST priority level is for those who have an injury (aka MSI), they already have discomfort, and they have other ergonomic risks/concerns at their workstation.
  • A HIGH priority is for when there is an injury (aka MSI) but no work discomfort and no other ergonomic risks.
  • A MODERATE priority is for when there is no injury (aka MSI), but there is work discomfort with no ergonomic risks.
  • A LOW priority is when there no injury (aka MSI), no work discomfort, but there are ergonomic risks.
  • The LOWEST priority is when there is no injury (aka MSI), no work discomfort, and no ergonomic risks. Although this may not warrant an ergonomic assessment, informational products and perhaps a training presentation can be a value-add.

Here’s an example.

I know we are talking high-level here so I have an example to make it seem a little more real for you. So, there’s Peter, Cathy, and Ed in an office. Without using a Discomfort Survey all three people would have equal access to me to get an office assessment and it would be a ‘first come first serve’ system. This system creates a bottleneck for those who have a lot of discomfort to be seen, it could be a long time for someone to reach me who actually had a lot of discomfort.

When it comes to any ergonomics program the meat and potatoes is preventing injuries from occurring in the first place, so if you don’t have a strong focus on prevention then your program is not going be as effective as it could be.

So, back to my example. Peter, Cathy, and Ed would all have equal access to getting an office assessment, but in reality Peter was actually in the most discomfort. Cathy and Ed were merely looking for a proactive type of assessment. Now, don’t get me wrong, proactive assessments are an important aspect of any organization’s ergonomic program but if you are scheduling based on priority of symptoms, those who have the most discomfort should likely be assessed with 48 hours (or sooner). All other should be planned to be seen in the upcoming weeks, based on your other work responsibilities.

Optimizing Scheduling 

After determining priority the next step is scheduling ergonomic assessments into your calendar. If you are just starting off doing ergonomic assessments, it’s probably best if you are careful with your time. This is to allow you enough time to assess the ergonomics of the workstation, develop solutions, and then write a report (if that is required).

I would typically space out ergonomic assessments like the graphic above shows (marked in blue!), so I wouldn’t compromise all of my time doing just office ergonomic assessments. Like I mentioned above, when I managed my own ergonomics program I had a number of ergonomic responsibilities, and office ergonomics was just a part of the overall picture. I know many of the Subscribers to this website are responsible for ergonomic assessments on top of their normal job duties; it’s really important to conserve time so your other essential job duties can be done! Remember, if you don’t prioritize assessments and schedule knowing you have other duties and responsibilities to get to, it can lead to overwhelm and burn-out. I’ve been there and done that!

Ergonomic ‘Emergencies’

Another reason to be careful with scheduling is that you will be able to address any sort of ergonomic ‘emergencies’ without it affecting your regular job duties too much. You can see that in the graphic below that yellow circles were added to the blue circles to indicate ‘emergencies’. In reality, types of ’emergency’ assessments will rarely occur, but it is a good idea to block off some time (or just schedule less ergonomic assessments) in your calendar to be safe. Overtime you will see what works and you may notice that there typically tends to be ‘busy times’ for these types of assessments that you can plan for. It could be around the year end, quarterly billings, or even after long weekends (see the next section!).

Return-to-Work

A good example of this is if someone returns back to work from an injury that they got from outside work – maybe throwing out their back when doing yard work on the long weekend. Or, it could be that someone is returning back to work via Workers’ Compensation after an injury occurred at work. If you have ever managed a Workers’ Compensation claim (like I have) you will know that the primary goal is early and safe return to work.  

Ergonomic assessments are HUGELY important in the return-to-work process. And, I would consider this a type of ’emergency’ assessment. Likely on the first day of that person’s return and near their start time is when one of these assessments would occur.

In these cases, the Game Changer is having suitable adaptive equipment on hand. For instance, in my workplace for such occasions I had a few key pieces of equipment that would help people return to work quicker and with less discomfort. I had a portable mountable sit-stand desk that I was able to bring to any staff member that had some sort of injury that limited the amount of time they would be able to sit, mostly related to some sort of back discomfort. This is a simple fix that would reduce the time they were away from work and allow them to be productive while working with less discomfort. Another thing that worked for me was that I had different types of mice available, notably rollermice and vertical mice, that I would lend to those who were returning to work after an injury to their dominant mousing hand. Many times they couldn’t use a normal mouse so these alternatives were just so simple to have that I could help the return-to-work process.

In closing… 

I hope that this post gave you some insight if you are considering an in-house ergonomic program in your office. I am a firm believer that up to 90 percent of all office assessments can be handled by an ergonomics program manager, providing they have had the right training, support, and coaching. Feel free to leave a comment below and we can chat!

Through the administration of countless assessments in both private and public sectors, Darcie has gained a wealth of knowledge and built a successful practice in the field of ergonomics. She has extensive expertise in conducting office ergonomics assessments in large scale workplaces for all different types of scenarios, from simple adjustments to incredibly complex cases. Darcie also has vast experience in delivering training presentations on the various aspects of ergonomics “best practices” in the workplace.

Darcie is a Certified Professional Ergonomist through the Board of Certification in Professional Ergonomics, as recognized by the International Ergonomics Association. She also has a Masters of Science, specializing in ergonomics.

A little known fact about Darcie is that she once scored from half, off a free kick, in a university varsity soccer (football) match!

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