Play Every Angle – with Matt Jeffs, DPT, PSM, CEAS

Ergonomics April 15, 2019

We’re All In This Together

One of the benefits we enjoy as faculty at The Back School is helping our CEAS graduates broaden their horizons. We’re often called on to help our growing family ‘learn the ropes’. As they begin their careers changing the work, the workforce and the workplace – for the betterment of all three – we’re here for them.

Recently, a newly minted colleague reached to us out about some satisfying contract work. In the jobs she was assessing, she noted the workers were handling cumbersome loads, with offset postures in highly repetitive tasks. Logically, she asked us about whether there were any devices we knew-of that might help solve this situation.

In our reply, we kindly coached her to step back from only looking for ‘a thing’ that might help. Rather, we encouraged her to consider a multifaceted approach to ergonomic problem-solving. It’s something I like to call ‘Play Every Angle’. An exercise that can reveal solutions we might overlook – or not consider at all.

play every angle

When Rooting-Out Causes Rooting-In

We encourage the application of Continuous Improvement. Lean Process Thinking works best if we avoid the pull of simple fixes. Application of 1) the Deming Cycle, 2) Standardization of Work, and 3) Five-Why Root Cause Analysis can be valuable. But sometimes we need to take pause. If sought prematurely, a ‘root cause’ can lead to tunnel-vision.

In his groundbreaking 2018 NYT bestseller ‘Enlightenment Now’, Harvard Cognitive Psychologist and Author Steven Pinker PhD warned of an affliction from which we all might suffer. The condition Pinker described was a kind of self-inflicted myopia known commonly as ‘Root-Causism’:

“The problem with root-causism is NOT that real-world problems are simple but the OPPOSITE: they are more complex than a typical root-cause theory allows… So complex, in fact, that treating the SYMPTOMS may be the BEST way of dealing with the problem, because it does not require omniscience… Indeed, by seeing what really DOES reduce the symptoms, one can test hypotheses about the causes, rather than just assuming them to be true. (Pp. 169-170 – Capitalization added for emphasis.)

Replying to our fledgling ergonomist, we offered her a broadening perspective. It’s a free, effective and efficient tool we use to multiply our view in ergonomic problem-solving. It’s known simply as the OSHA Hierarchy of Controls (https://www.osha.gov/shpguidelines/hazard-prevention.html ) – and it serves us well.

Multiple Views Reveal Multiple Angles

The OSHA Hierarchy of Controls (HoC) allows us multifactorial ergonomic results. It also offers us chronological ones. We’re unlikely to encounter clients with a blank checkbook. We rarely produce a silver bullet that will solve all problems with just one shot. Those events do come along in our work, but not nearly as often as we’d wish.

With the OSHA HoC approach, we offer clients more than a one-and-done fix. Instead, we provide them with a winning game plan. We begin with the cheapest, most accessible interventions (usually PPE and Administrative Controls) and build from there.

A chronological and financial path toward more sustainable (and often more expensive) solutions ensue. And as Dr. Pinker pointed out, the client may solve their own problem without ever needing to reach that costly conclusion. 

We Can Go Hard – OR – We Can Go Soft

The OSHA HoC can be used to focus on work environment (harder controls) just as easily as it can be aimed toward worker behavior (softer controls). This bilateral attack applies gentle pressure to influence both sustainability and culture in a workplace.

Let’s observe these different ways of examining an ergonomic condition. For the sake of brevity, we’ll lump-in Elimination with Substitution. They’re closely (enough) related, with a certain amount of overlap:

Workplace-Oriented Hard Controls

Elimination or Substitution are known as ‘hard controls’. They are often difficult or expensive to implement. They’re usually the most effective and reliable solutions to vexing ergonomic problems. The goal is to remove or replace the hazard entirely.

Taken to extremes, this very tactic has meant entire plants moving from our shores. Building a new plant from scratch in a foreign land with less stringent regulations has a financial appeal. Sometimes it’s the least costly method to bring expense and exposure down.

Meanwhile, Substitution might better involve redesigning the job to remove unsafe work practices domestically. It could also mean substituting objects or tools from existing ones to eliminate exposure. In a word, it’s scalable. Substitution can replace a known hazard for one that is less risky, or preferably not harmful at all.

Engineering – also known as Segregation – methods are ‘hard controls’, too. They can be difficult and / or expensive to implement as well. As with all workplace interventions however, they may be more effective and reliable in the long run.

Compared to our ‘softer’ approaches below, these hard workplace controls have merit. Denying access to hazards by installing barriers, machine guards, etc. are apt examples of engineering-out risk. At times, they’re our only option.

Workforce-Oriented Soft Controls

Administrative and training styles are ‘soft controls’. They can often be easier and less cost prohibitive to implement. But they may not always be as effective (or as reliable). Enacting policies and redefining Standard Operating Procedures (SOP’s) to control – or at least influence – behavior are apt examples.

Changing the way people work and the way they see work is the motive. Involving the use of safe systems of work to control risk is the method. These controls are used when exposure cannot be minimized by any other means. Job rotation, task rotation, stretch-and-flex, etc. are common tools used toward this end.

Personal Protection and behavioral tactics are the ‘softest’ controls of all. They can be easiest and least expensive to implement. But they are notoriously the least effective and reliable, too. This is due to their reliance on worker compliance behavior.

Involving workers in the decision-making process creates unknown variables. It’s a laudable aim that sometimes backfires. Fogging safety glasses, ill-fitting safety gloves, and poor tool design are examples of PPE detriments. The workforce learns they’re as much hindrance as a help – and compliance suffers.

Having vendors provide sample PPE for workers to test-drive is a best practice. Comfort, effectiveness and compliance will make or break success. We recommend PPE only when other measures are not immediately attainable or practical.

Adjusting Our Lens

play every angle

Our new CEAS colleague valued the expanded point of view now afforded her. Her ergonomic toolkit is much deeper and richer. Instead of the one silver-bullet answer she first sought, she offered her client a full magazine of ammunition.

Additionally, she submitted to her client a sequential path toward success. Stepping-stones that can impact workplace culture, workforce engagement and work performance – all at once.

The lesson here is sometimes we’re able to locate a plug-and-play ‘thing’ into an ergonomic challenge that fits perfectly. Boom. It’s done. But when that falls short, we better have more arrows in our quiver. Otherwise, we’re just a one-trick-pony with no depth or breadth to what we have to offer.

Our modern workplace influences are myriad and variable. As ergonomist, it’s incumbent upon us to understand this. Relationships between the physical, cognitive, and social elements of ergonomics can’t be ignored. We do so at our own peril. Use the OSHA HoC approach. It’ll broaden your horizons. And it’ll compound your effectiveness. In the short-term and in the long run.  

Matt Jeffs, DPT, PSM, CEAS


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