There are at least three ways to look at the "dollars and sense" of ergonomics in the computerized office place.
- One can look at potential productivity gains from successful ergonomic interventions
- One can examine case studies from corporations to get an idea of the overall benefits of ergonomic interventions
- One can think in terms of avoiding the cost of repetitive strain injuries
Several laboratory and field studies have been done to investigate the effects on ergonomic interventions on productivity and employee comfort ratings. It is difficult to do such studies under strict experimental controls, so each of the studies has some methodological shortcomings. However, looking at all these studies as a group provides a valuable picture of ergonomic effects in a variety of situations. The following is a partial summary of research results:
Francis and Dressel (1990)
studied government procurement clerks and rated productivity under three circumstances:
The first group showed no improvement in satisfaction ratings or productivity; the second group showed improved satisfaction ratings, but no increase in productivity; and, the third group with ergonomically adjustable furniture showed improvement in satisfaction ratings as well as a 20% improvement in the number of items procured. Francis and Dressel estimated a 10.8 month payback for the ergonomic improvements they made in the workplace.
- "standard-issue" federal government non-adjustable furniture in the existing office situation.
- New modular furniture with new office decor.
- "ergonomically" adjustable furniture with new office decor.
studied workers in a laboratory doing realistic office tasks and found that workers at ergonomically appropriate VDT workstations were at least 4-5% more productive.
in Scandinavia reported a dramatic decrease in worker turnover when ergonomic improvements were made. There were savings in payments for sick leave and savings in worker training realized from ergonomic interventions.
T. J. Springer (1982)
reported a 10% improvement in transactions per hour for VDT operators doing dialogue computer transactions and 15% improvement for operators doing straight data entry at an insurance company when seating and workstations were improved. Springer further reported that about 5% improvement was due to seating improvements alone.
reported a 14% reduction in error rate for document preparation after furniture was improved for VDT users.
Case study examples of successful ergonomic interventions
Recently, several corporations have begun to report the results of their ergonomic programs for the office place. In almost every case study, the number of musculoskeletal discomforts reported increases immediately after employees are provided with ergonomic educational programs. That increase is temporary and is followed by a longer term significant decrease. Most researchers believe that workers are being encouraged to report minor discomforts early (when they can be easily addressed) and that this accounts for the initial increase in reporting rate. This prevents more serious discomforts and injuries later. Early reports is definitely an advantage in the workplace.
Consumer Power Company
in Michigan reported that the physical discomfort levels of their customer service representatives fell by more than 50%, with overall comfort ratings increasing more than 300% when workstations were redone to address ergonomic concerns. Additionally, representatives' fatigue levels dropped dramatically.
Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Kansas
reported that when ergonomically appropriate chairs were provided along with adjustable workstation accessories and an educational program, the number of cumulative trauma claims dropped from 103 in 1991 before the intervention to 21 in 1995 after the intervention. The corresponding cost went from $526,000 to $25,000.
The effect of ergonomic interventions on cost avoidance
Another way to look at the economics of ergonomic intervention is to review the costs of ergonomic problems. For example, the following data on the cost of cumulative trauma injuries can be weighed.
- The average cost of a wrist injury to the Fresno Bee, a California newspaper was $21,000 in lost time alone
- The average cost for a cumulative trauma injury at Pacific Bell was $20,000
- US West Telecommunications in Denver spend 2.2 million dollars in workers' compensation costs for repetitive strain injuries among directory assistance telephone operators
- Liberty Mutual Insurance estimates that a cumulative trauma injury claim cost at least $5600
- The national Council on Compensation Insurance states that the average cost of a cumulative trauma injury is $29,000 per person
- Blue Cross of California reported that the total price tag for a case of carpal tunnel syndrome (including medical costs and lost productivity) is $100,000.
Extensive research demonstrates that postural adjustments do affect employee comfort, health, and productivity. Employees who use VDTs for continuous periods need a number of adjustments at their workstations. Furthermore, there may be a high cost associated with not intervening ergonomically.