What arguments can safety and hygiene professionals use to defend or propose ergonomics programs now that OSHA's standard is on hold? The experts say, "Try hard evidence."

Some companies are reluctant to show their ergonomic success out of fear of helping their competitors. Still, others set themselves apart by setting an example for ergo programs, says Marilyn Joyce, president of the Joyce Institute in Seattle. "We have a long list of case studies and examples," says Joyce. For example:

  • Avery Dennison netted $1.7 million over two and a half years (1992-1995) in terms of reduced workers' compensation costs, increases in productivity, and increases in the company's cohesiveness, according to the Joyce Institute.

  • Nintendo Corporation figures it saves $1 million annually on an investment of $400,000. The benefits were noticed as early as six weeks following ergonomics improvements made in January, 1992. A 40-percent reduction in labor costs and a drop in medical insurance costs over 20 percent led annual savings. Workers compensation costs fell 16-20 percent and lifting-related injuries declined by 80 percent.

  • Milton Bradley had trouble with packaging until their ergo program began, which improved quality 90 percent.

  • Hewlett-Packard got back their investment plus 5 percent in one year.

  • According to the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW), the Red Wing Shoe Company implemented their ergo program in 1985. Although the results took a few years to show, by 1989 their workers' compensation insurance premiums were reduced by 70 percent. Their lost workdays went down 79 percent.

  • 3M's programs are also working out successfully. Wayne Adams, a 3M staff ergonomist, says the company nets an annual return of $250,000 from increased productivity alone coming from a one-time investment of $85,000 at one of their plants.

"The companies that are concerned about productivity and quality are including ergonomics as part of what they do," says Joyce. "So ergonomics is not so much about compliance as good business sense."

"The goal of industrial ergonomics is to improve jobs," reminds Adams. "In the process of making job improvements, it is important not to become distracted by placing primary emphasis on regulations."

Of course an OSHA standard would make it easier to explain the need for ergonomics to top managers. Now, say safety pros, ergonomics has lost the urgency it had six months ago.

"Legislation puts ergonomics at the top of the to-do list, but I don't see it being taken off the list altogether," says Carol Stuart-Buttle, CPE, who heads her own consulting business in Pennsylvania. "I was here [as an ergonomist] before all this publicity and legislation, and I am still here."

Time to review

With the standard in limbo, now is good time for safety and health professionals to review their ergonomics strategies.

Several consultants recommend integrating ergonomics with safety, quality, or production programs. According to a survey conducted by The Joyce Institute of 45 industrial and office organizations, 89 percent of the ergonomics programs studied were integrated with other corporate programs.

Still, 67 percent made use of an ergonomics task force.

Another school of thought is to keep a separate focus on ergonomics in order to reap the most rewards.

Here are several other points to consider in making the case for ergonomics:

  • Every employer surveyed by The Joyce Institute said employee complaints were a reason for implementing ergo programs. Only 11 percent mentioned OSHA citations as a motivator. This shows that ergonomics is an employee relations issue-- as well as a quality, productivity, and workers' comp issue-- more than a matter of OSHA enforcement.

  • Strike the right tone when making your pitch. "Just saying, 'hey man, we need this' may make a CEO standoffish," says Charles Garrison, the safety officer for EMCO in Austin, Texas. Back up your proposal with data, he suggests.

  • Managers should be reminded that "the Republicans have the idea that OSHA is too all-powerful, not that ergonomics doesn't work," says Jackie Nowell, assistant director of the Occupational Safety and Health Office for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. "Companies wouldn't be (implementing programs) now if they didn't cut down on workers' compensation," she says.