April 9, 2024 / Abby Roberts

No “One Size Fits All”: The Shared Goals of Ergonomics and Safety Equity

Image Credit: Getty Images / Dzmitry Dzemidovich

Many occupational and environmental health and safety (OEHS) professionals are already familiar with ergonomics—an applied science that considers human abilities, limitations, and characteristics in the design of work systems—especially in the context of preventing musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). However, they may not have considered the overlap between ergonomics and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Both ergonomics and DEI enable participation by all members of a workforce. While ergonomics programs aim to design work environments that account for workers' differing needs and abilities, DEI values ensure that support is provided equitably across the workplace.

The National Safety Council MSD Solutions Lab recently published a set of infographics on equity and ergonomics (PDF). According to Sarah Williams Ischer, MS, CIH, CSP, who leads the MSD Solutions Lab, this resource focuses on how "at the core, ergonomics is really centered around equity and inclusion."

Rebecca Martin, MPH, IMH-E, a member of the NSC workplace well-being team, elaborated that ergonomics is part of safety equity, a concept analogous to that of health equity. In a state of safety equity, everyone has the opportunity to obtain the highest level of safety. "One of the things that we're trying to do at NSC is use what we've learned in public health and health equity and find parallels in the world of safety," Martin said.

Ergonomics and health equity have similar principles and aim for similar outcomes, Ischer added. "We really focus on why businesses should incorporate these practices to bolster safety with belonging, enhance performance and innovation, and broaden their talent pools."

The Broader Importance of MSD Prevention

Ischer became an industrial hygienist after experiencing an injury at work. "I understood how that can really change your life," she said. "At times, we're at work more than we are at home, so it's really important that we're interacting with safe environments."

Martin shares Ischer's view on the importance of workplace safety to overall health, but her perspective is shaped by her public health background. "When I think about the workplace, I think about it as part of the public health infrastructure," she said. "And I think that, a lot of times, workplaces don't always see themselves as part of public health."

MSDs are not simply health issues in themselves. Martin explained that they have wider-reaching public health impacts: for example, a person's risk of developing substance use disorder increases after they begin using or are prescribed opioids to deal with work-related pain. CDC warns that as many as one in four patients who receive long-term opioid therapy in clinical settings struggles with addiction. "Risk for injury is also risk for opioid exposure," Martin said.

The context of the nationwide opioid epidemic makes clear that preventing workplace MSDs is critical to improving the health of the general population—and that employers have a social responsibility to do so. The MSD Solutions Lab aims to help employers take a proactive approach to MSD prevention by "understanding people, how they do their work, and how their work is suited to them," Ischer said, "and ensuring that employers provide a workplace that's free of these hazards. So that way, they don't become injured."

Developing Inclusive Ergonomic Solutions

Through her work at NSC, Ischer has learned that there's no "one size fits all" solution for workplace safety. Successful ergonomics and MSD prevention programs acknowledge that each worker has unique safety needs, and inclusivity should be embedded within programs from the outset. "We need to meet people where they are and provide them with tools to help them do their work," Ischer said, "and not expect them to change the way that they are or the way that they do things."

Ischer and Martin stressed that these needs go beyond individual risk factors. Effective MSD solutions—following the hierarchy of controls—aim not to change workers' behaviors but to improve broader work systems. These systems encompass health insurance and benefits provided by employers, in addition to work practices, work environments, equipment, and tools. For example, employers and OEHS professionals may need to ensure they deliver training and instructional materials on MSD prevention to workers on all shifts or whose primary language is not English. Employers who issue personal protective equipment must accommodate for workers' varying face shapes, body shapes, heights, and weights. "It comes down to understanding your workforce and what their needs are because if you aren't providing those things, you're actually making them less safe at work," Ischer said.

Ischer noted that understanding employees' needs requires including all employees' voices in decision-making. This means "taking a step back and asking people what they need and understanding that people might not be willing to speak up," she said. "So having different avenues of getting feedback as well is really important."

For Martin, effective programs need psychologically safe work environments. "Do you have a workplace that encourages non-punitive discussions around safety?" she asked. "Is your culture of safety really set up to embrace people being able to talk about the things that are unsafe or more risk for injury or pain?"

Ergonomic solutions may involve major investments such as industrial robots, but they may also be as simple as providing instructional materials to workers. "You don't have to start big—you can start small," Ischer said. Other "small" solutions may be "starting with a DEI work group in your workplace and including the safety team in that work group," she continued.

"Coming out of the pandemic, there's been a movement among the workforce, too, that we don't necessarily need to work through pain," Martin added. "That means workplaces have to address the risks and hazards that workers are confronting and support workers so that they're not coming to work in pain and developing MSDs, leading to long-term mobility issues or risk for substance use."

Next Steps

At AIHA Connect 2024, Ischer and Martin will discuss the connection between ergonomics and DEI more thoroughly in their presentation, "If It's Not Equitable, It's Not Ergonomic." In addition to improving attendees' understanding of DEI, they hope to provide practical guidance on developing effective, equitable ergonomic solutions.

Ischer hopes the session will help attendees "understand that ergonomics should already have equity embedded." For programs that do not already incorporate equity, she and Martin will discuss "steps that you can take to make a more inclusive environment."

A major goal of the session will be to "help people recognize that everybody can do something to address equity," Martin added. "All workplaces can do something to make sure that people have an equitable chance to be safe and healthy and well."

Sarah Williams Ischer and Rebecca Martin will present Session K5, "If It's Not Equitable, It's Not Ergonomic," on Wednesday, May 22, 2024, from 8 to 9 a.m. Eastern time. AIHA Connect 2024 will be held May 20–22 in person at the Greater Columbus Convention Center, Columbus, Ohio, and virtually. To learn more about the keynote sessions, view the conference agenda, or register, visit the conference website.

Abby Roberts

Abby Roberts is the assistant editor at AIHA.


Application of DEI to ergonomics adds un-necessary complexity

Ergonomics is fundamentally designing or modifying work and equipment to fit the worker, not the other way around. Ergonomists promote flexibility in work arrangements and equipment so that the workplace can be adjusted to fit the worker. Basic safety includes discussion and communication, gathering information regarding workplace hazards, and effective training. Application of DEI results in complexity that is not necessary. If one goes too far the rabbit-hole of equity and social issues, the job of the safety professional and/or ergonomists in the real world where resources are very limited, becomes untenable. I will not provide my real name and email address. The current social climate does not allow one to make a statement such as above, without the fear of retribution or cancelling.

By Basic Safety Comments on April 15, 2024 1:02pm

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