The right metrics for ergonomics

Choosing what to measure when can make all the difference for your enterprise


By Jack Kester

Performance measurement can be a key to success for any operational or management process. The right metrics enable an organization to focus staff members on critical activities and outcomes that achieve the desired revenues and earnings for shareholders. The challenge is to identify those select metrics that will focus your staff on what is most important for your business. The devil is in the details.

Your ergonomics process is simply another management process that must be implemented effectively to attain the outcomes that management is seeking. Many ergonomics processes have failed due to the metrics that were selected when they were initially implemented. The management teams believed that metrics for their ergonomics processes were self-evident because they would reduce the number of workers’ compensation claims related to musculoskeletal disorders and reduce the costs related to those claims.

While those may be valid goals over the long term, using those two metrics over the short term might disappoint your management ranks. As the ergonomics process is implemented, more employees become aware of musculoskeletal disorders and their symptoms. At that point, the number of claims and their related costs may increase, causing management to rethink the wisdom of implementing ergonomics in their workplace. While the increased incident rates may have been a short-term phenomenon, many ergonomics processes have been discontinued due to such perceived negative outcomes.

These false starts could have been avoided if the right short-term and long-term metrics had been introduced when the ergonomics processes were initiated. Let’s take a look at effective metrics for ergonomics processes.

Sustainable ergonomics processes

Implementing an effective ergonomics process is not rocket science, unless you are implementing it at Boeing or Northrop Grumman. Most ergonomics processes have similar elements: an ergonomics team, some form of prioritization system for selecting jobs for analysis, an ergonomics analysis process, ergonomics training, etc.

However, many ergonomics processes do not provide enough detail to create measurable process tracking and effective metrics. Many processes fail to provide enough data in a format that enables the management team to make informed decisions on ergonomics solutions. Most processes do not provide enough meaningful feedback to management or provide a structure for engaging management in the process. These missing features affect the effectiveness of the processes and limit management’s ability to develop metrics that address the most meaningful activities.

Now, envision an ergonomics process that objectively prioritizes risk in the workplace to focus resources where they will have the greatest impact. Consider a process that calculates the impact on risk and the potential return on investment (ROI) when ergonomics solution options are submitted to management for approval.

Think about how employees will react when they see senior managers actively involved in meaningful ergonomics activities in their work areas. How would it feel to see flags and displays at workstations that celebrate and illustrate the effectiveness of the ergonomics solutions implemented at the plant’s actual workstations? That is the difference that you see and feel with a sustainable ergonomics process. And each of those process elements can be measured if, at the outset, they are designed thoughtfully.

One of the most important elements of an ergonomics process is an objective method for prioritizing risk in the workplace. One method of prioritizing risk is to use a risk assessment format that provides a means for scoring the level of risk. A number of available risk assessment tools can quantify the ergonomics risk, and it is important to select a tool that results in consistent scores regardless of who completes the assessment. The ergonomics process should define how and when a risk assessment will be performed and how risk will be prioritized. A metric then could be established to track the effectiveness of the assessment process.

The risk assessment tool has a number of other uses. As ergonomic solution options are developed, the team can use the assessment tool to project the potential impact on risk for each option. That can be a meaningful data point as management selects between the solution options.

The assessment tool also can be used to validate the impact of an ergonomics solution after implementation. This confirms the effectiveness of the solution and enables the ergonomics team to recognize any unintended consequences that result from how the solution was implemented. The follow-up assessment is a critical activity that could be included in the short-term metrics.

Metrics can be developed to track significant risk assessment activities to enable management to track the implementation of the process. For example, some meaningful metrics on risk assessment may include:

  • The percentage of jobs/tasks with completed risk assessments compared to the time frames in the ergonomics process
  • The percentage of new or revised workstations with risk assessments completed within 30 days
  • The percentage (or number) of ergonomics solutions implemented that achieved significant risk reductions based on a post-implementation risk assessment validation

A sustainable process provides a simple mechanism for calculating potential returns on investment for ergonomics solution options. A spreadsheet calculator – Figure 1 shows an example – can estimate the potential monetary returns for each solution and present the ROI calculations side by side in a summary sheet to enable management to make informed decisions as they select between solution options. This ROI calculation also should be performed after an ergonomics solution has been implemented to confirm the operational impact. The metrics should compare the ROI or payback periods for ergonomics solutions to corporate expectations for ROI or payback periods for capital investments.

Sustainable processes provide frequent feedback to the management team with data on the key metrics in a one-page, quick-look report. A member of the ergonomics team reviews the metrics with senior management on a monthly basis to provide feedback on progress and to solicit management assistance or involvement when obstacles arise. The impact of ergonomics solutions is reviewed with management during these meetings, providing positive reinforcement that the ergonomics process is adding value to the business.

Management engagement is a prominent element of a sustainable ergonomics process. When senior managers perform highly visible activities within the process, staff members recognize the importance of their roles in ergonomics. The management team also gets a close-up look at how ergonomics affects the staff members and their well-being. This provides positive reinforcement to management as well as other staffers, along with providing potential metrics to hold management accountable for its level of engagement.

Metrics that drive change

“What gets measured gets done.”

We all have heard that timeless theory about metrics and effectiveness. The key to making this work is to ensure we are measuring the right things at the right times.

For example, ergonomics processes can reduce workers’ compensation costs. However, it takes time to implement the ergonomics process and introduce changes to workstations and workflow that will reduce risk for your staff. Measuring the workers’ compensation cost reductions three months after implementing the ergonomics process sends the wrong message to the management team and to hourly staff members because such figures are great long-term metrics but provide no meaningful information over the short term.

Long-term metrics focus on the intended outcomes of the ergonomics process once it has had time to be implemented and become normalized. Long-term metrics can start to provide some meaningful data two or three years after the ergonomics process is functional. If long-term metrics do not meet expectations, management should evaluate the ergonomics process to identify flaws or gaps.

For example, evaluating the process may show that effective ergonomics solutions have been implemented, but employees have not adopted the changes or are not using new tools and equipment as intended. Armed with that information, the process can be modified to reinforce training and behavior observation practices to improve the level of conformance.

Over the short term, the management team needs to track upstream metrics – the implementation of critical ergonomics process elements that will achieve long-term goals. If the process is designed properly, the significant process elements will include time frames for performance and procedures to gather feedback and evaluate the quality of ergonomics activities.

The ergonomics process should be simple to translate into upstream metrics to enable management to evaluate the level of implementation. This provides the opportunity to identify areas where implementation is lagging and enables management to identify and overcome any internal obstacles and guide the process back on track. Better yet, when short-term metrics reveal effective application of the process, management can provide positive reinforcement to team members to encourage continued success.

The best management processes allow for mutual accountability, establishing roles in the process for all staff members, from hourly workers to the senior management team. All staff members should be held accountable for effectively fulfilling their roles in the process.

For example, the ergonomics team typically submits its ideas for ergonomics solutions to management to gain agreement and to secure funding for solution implementation. The management team should be accountable for making decisions on the ergonomics solutions within a reasonable designated time frame. Training the ergonomics team to estimate ROI or payback periods for its solutions as well as potential risk reduction will facilitate management discussions and reduce the decision-making time frames.

Let’s look at some examples of typical short-term and long-term metrics used by prominent U.S. organizations.

Short-term metrics

As mentioned above, short-term metrics should be designed to implement key ergonomics activities effectively. You need to trust that the ergonomics process will achieve the intended outcomes if management, ergonomics team members, and other staff members fulfill their roles within the process.

Therefore, short-term metrics, which have a time frame of zero to three years, focus on the implementation and quality of performance for significant ergonomics activities, such as:

  • Percentage of risk assessments performed within the process timelines
  • Consistency of the scoring in the risk assessment process
  • Ergonomics job analyses performed for the selected number of jobs/tasks defined as “high risk” within the risk assessment process
  • The number of ergonomic analyses completed for high-risk jobs with a range of potential solutions presented to management with data on the potential impact on the “risk score” and the estimated return on investment of each solution option
  • Management decisions made on the solutions presented for the high-risk jobs within the time frames designated by the ergonomics process
  • The number of ergonomics solutions implemented for high-risk jobs
  • The number of validations of the reduction in the risk score and the return on investment for ergonomics solutions implemented
  • The number of cases of senior management involvement or engagement in critical and visible ergonomics activities, such as behavior observations after the implementation of ergonomics solutions, observation of risk assessment activities performed by the ergonomics team, ergonomics solution brainstorming sessions, etc.
  • The frequency of the status reports to management as defined within the ergonomics process

These metrics enable the management team to track the effectiveness of the implementation of the ergonomics process. If the upstream metrics are not being met, management can intervene to address issues.

For example, a common issue that arises is an uncooperative production supervisor who will not allow ergonomics team members to leave their jobs to perform risk assessments or job analyses. When the risk assessment metrics are behind schedule, senior management can investigate the causal factors and secure the cooperation of the supervisor. Training issues and team conflict are other issues that can be uncovered as management evaluates short-term metric performance.

Short-term metrics provide a valuable mechanism to spot flaws in the ergonomics process implementation quickly to maintain momentum and achieve success.

Long-term metrics

Long-term metrics focus on downstream outcomes that add value to the company. Management team members want to

see the return that they are receiving for their efforts and resources allocated over the long term.

Are we avoiding employee injuries so our people are present and productive at work? Are we implementing ergonomics solutions that significantly reduce risk and increase productivity? The long-term metrics, which have a time frame longer than three years, capture the operational impact of the ergonomics process on the business.

Typical long-term metrics for ergonomics processes include:

  • Number of ergonomics solutions implemented for highrisk jobs
  • Percentage of successful outcomes for the ergonomics solutions implemented, including measurable risk reductions, quantifiable productivity gains and acceptable ROIs
  • Number for workers’ compensation claims related to musculoskeletal disorders
  • Average cost per claim for musculoskeletal disorders
  • Total claim costs for musculoskeletal disorders

If long-term metrics are not heading in the right direction, management should evaluate the ergonomics process to identify flaws in the system. Is the risk assessment scoring accurate and consistent? Do the ergonomics job analyses capture all of the primary musculoskeletal risk factors? Are the estimates for risk reduction accurate when solution options are presented to management? Have the workstation changes been installed improperly, or have the solutions created unintended consequences that create other risk factors?

A joint management-ergonomics team causal analysis may generate discussions that lead to significant improvements in the process going forward. One or two simple issues may need to be resolved to make the ergonomics process operate as intended.

Ongoing focus on results

Operational metrics can drive positive trends in an organization if management selects and uses the right measures to monitor the ergonomics implementation process and intervene to keep the process on track.

Upstream short-term metrics provide a window of opportunity to identify obstacles early in the process. Downstream long-term metrics gauge performance and enable the management team to take a broader view of the ergonomics process and its impact on the organization.

Metrics empower organizations to evaluate and continuously improve performance of management processes, including ergonomics. Enlightened management teams use positive results from the short-term and long-term metrics to motivate their staff to reach new heights. Effective use of metrics can change your organization.

Jack Kester is the director of solution development for Creative Risk Solutions LLC, where he works with corporate clients on safety, ergonomics and injury management projects. Kester has served as the regulatory compliance manager at Argonne National Laboratory and leader of the global workplace productivity and ergonomics practice for Marsh Risk Consulting. He has spoken at major risk management and ergonomics conferences that include the Applied Ergonomics Conference, the National Ergonomics Conference and Expo and the American Society of Safety Engineers Professional Development Conference. Kester has a B.S. in occupational safety from Illinois State University and has earned the professional designations of certified safety professional and certified industrial ergonomist. 


As technology has enabled employees to connect to the workplace from anywhere, the old idea of one office and one desk per person is morphing. Some workplaces are experimenting with hot-desking or hoteling, where multiple workers could share one physical workstation – making things even more difficult for your office ergonomics program, according to the REMI Network, a news and information source for real estate managers. Ergonomists Catherine Smallman and Linda Miller wrote that shared workstations create three common challenges.

First, people are different in size and stature. This makes it even more important to provide adjustable furniture and equipment. Instead of a one-chair-fits-all philosophy, a better idea might be selecting one type of chair to accommodate smaller individuals and another for larger people. Second, each employee also likely has different job task demands. Their requirements, along with the number of monitors, will affect desk size and configuration. For example, desks with dual monitors need at least 30 inches of desk depth for adequate viewing distance. Third, each employee likely has different individual needs. Providing each employee with a personal keyboard, mouse and phone headset will control cleanliness and accommodate their individual ergonomic needs.

And don’t forget to train each worker on how best to use the equipment, the ergonomists noted. While hot-desking allows facility managers to reduce real estate and operating costs, those savings could evaporate if you don’t take care of the comfort and health of your workforce.