Users of IWH’s participatory ergonomics guide report better awareness of key steps

Evaluation study finds high interest in participatory ergonomics, but little opportunity for implementation

Evidence over recent years has shown that workplace ergonomics interventions can be effective if they engage workers to identify hazards and come up with solutions.

This approach, called “participatory ergonomics,” is based on the idea that, when workers, supervisors and other workplace parties jointly identify and solve ergonomics issues in the workplace, musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) prevention programs are more likely to succeed.

For participatory ergonomics (PE) to work, a number of components have to be in place. These components were identified in a 2008 systematic review by the Institute for Work & Health (IWH). Then, with input from occupational health and safety (OHS) practitioners, findings were summarized in a PE guide entitled, Reducing MSD Hazards in the Workplace: A Guide to Successful Participatory Ergonomics Programs.

In a new survey study of more than 500 OHS practitioners in B.C. about their use of the guide, IWH Associate Scientist Dwayne Van Eerd found a high level of interest in implementing participatory ergonomics, but little time to use the guide to do so. However, for those who did use the guide, many reported using it for training. Also, an encouraging number reported greater awareness of participatory ergonomics components.

This study showed that there was great interest in an evidence-based tool on how to initiate a PE program, says Van Eerd, whose study was published in September in the online issue of Ergonomics (doi:10.1080/00140139.2015.1088073). Respondents reported increased awareness of key components necessary to implement PE, but they also let us know that finding time to use the guide was a challenge.

Evaluating uptake

The PE guide is a short, 12-page booklet that outlines six essential components of PE, illustrating each with a short example. In this study, Van Eerd’s team set out to understand whether the PE guide was used, and how, in busy workplaces or practices. “We had engaged OHS stakeholders in the development of the tool, in the hope that the tool would be useful to practitioners,” he adds. “In this evaluation study, we wanted to understand how the guide was used, to help inform our future work developing OHS tools.”

This evaluation study was done over a 15-month period in British Columbia, with recruiting help from WorkSafeBC and several professional associations in the province. Everyone who downloaded the guide from the WorkSafeBC website during the recruiting period was invited to take part. Of the more-than-500 people who agreed, the vast majority (84 per cent) had an occupational health and safety role. About half had health and safety in their title; about 16 per cent had human resources in their title.

In a series of follow-up surveys, sent out between one and nine months after people downloaded the guide, Van Eerd’s team found between 40 to 50 per cent of respondents said they used the guide. Of these, most said they shared the guide with others or used it in training.

Many respondents who used the guide said they were aware of the implementation barriers listed in it. This was the case in all surveys—from 61 per cent at the one-month follow-up to 40 per cent at the nine-month follow-up. The level of awareness about each of the six key components of PE varied from about one-fifth to three-fifths of responses.

It was interesting to see how often people reported using the guide for training purposes in workplaces, says Van Eerd. The respondents appeared to be knowledgeable about PE.

About four in 10 of the sample reported an initial interest in implementing PE. While few reported actually implementing such a program during the study period, there were reports of integrating the guide into an existing PE program or into a current OHS practice. The team found other encouraging indications that respondents were on their way to creating a PE program. In addition to the high levels of respondents using the guide for training, between 10 to 30 per cent reported acting on the other key steps of participatory ergonomics, such as identifying a champion or making decisions through group consultations.

Despite the challenges of finding time, respondents reported sharing and integrating the elements described in the guide into existing practices, says Van Eerd. They also reported taking new actions related to defining team responsibilities and, most often, for training activities. While the team had hoped to see the guide being used for implementation, he adds, we also didn’t expect that to happen in a relatively short survey timeline.

Overall, this study shows that short, evidence-based tools such as the PE are an important way to overcome the perennial lack-of-time challenge, says Van Eerd. The team will next study the implementation process to identify other barriers that need to be addressed in the guide.

Source: At Work, Issue 82, Fall 2015: Institute for Work & Health, Toronto

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