How to improve OHS through good work design

Monday 8 May, 2017

Workers Working on New Design

Organisations and OHS professionals need to take a human-centred approach to the design of work, according to an expert in the area, who said this approach will yield both better OHS outcomes and business results.

When workers are involved in work redesign, the very nature of their daily tasks becomes more meaningful, said Sara Pazell, a professional ergonomist, registered occupational therapist and PhD candidate with the University of Queensland Minerals Industry Safety Health Centre.

“They become architects of superior work design, as long as they have the support of a well-informed design strategy and mechanism for change coupled with knowledge of human performance technology,” she said.

“The solutions are likely to be resilient; human-centred design provides an evidence-based medium to reduce fatality, severe disablement, injury, and illness, as well as to advance social connection, health, productivity, inclusivity and sustainability.”

Pazell, who was speaking ahead The Safety Institute of Australia’s Visions Conference, which will be held in Toowoomba from 21-23 May 2017, also said that existing safety management systems typically encourage compliance, not creativity and innovation.

“The identification of hazards and determination of risks at work is necessary, but unlikely sufficient to inspire meaningful change or work redesign in a business,” she said.

“We need to recognise what else is required for good work design.

“Our leadership systems may not encourage work teams to seek innovation through diversity, work with others, or seek design-based ideas from outside the industry.”

Rather, Pazell said an integrated approach to safety, health and wellbeing is required.

“Too often, safety is separated from health promotion, and wellbeing is governed separately by human resource activities,” she said.

If a business or industry wishes to make radical change and improvement, Pazell said radical steps are required.

“A complete turnaround of resources is required so that investment is heavier in good work design versus injury treatment.”

Pazell gave the example of Rio Tinto Weipa’s bauxite aluminium mining operation, which committed to a program approximately seven years ago to address musculoskeletal disorders and hand injuries.

The program included the implementation of a comprehensive participative ergonomics program, and their methods included training a lead coordinator and hosting train-the-trainer sessions so that at least 20 key staff members were trained in good work design through participative ergonomics.

The workforce consisted of 1200 regular full-time staff and seasonal workflow of 200 contractors.

“This is significant when you may consider that only one full-time equivalent employee manages the injury treatment and occupational rehabilitation program,” said Pazell.

“They have invested in work improvement, health, and injury prevention, far more heavily than treatment, reflecting their commitment to change for the positive.

“They set lead indicator benchmarks among each of six key business units to achieve at least five design improvement changes annually, of which at least 60 per cent must also address hand injury risk, and they have met and exceeded this target of at least 30 work (re)design improvements per year.”

The operation also maintains a task-based library of good work design and communicates its successes broadly, throughout the business and in industry.

“They are very forthright and willing to share good work design ideas and dedicate time and resource to assist contractors and suppliers,” said Pazell.

While it did not target lag indicator measures at the onset of the program, it has achieved a reduction in hand injuries annually over this time, from approximately 20 per annum to 1. Musculoskeletal disorders have also reduced to less than 25 per cent of previous records, and it has had a significant reduction in all injury frequency rate, statutory claims, WorkCover costs, and common law claims.

“Most businesses, particularly in heavy industry, have a capital asset management plan,” said Pazell.

“If our equipment is considered to be so valuable, so, too, should our workers, the humans that create the pulse in our business.”

Pazell explained the concept of a “Human Asset Action Plan” (HAAP or HAAPy), which she said reflects a fundamental belief that each and every person involved in the business is of merit.

“Put simply, this type of plan believes that each person associated with the business has something to contribute,” she said.

“It suggests human-systems integration in which human-centred design and participative ergonomics are common to the business.

“In so doing, it embellishes traditional safety management systems and wellbeing programs by integrating business unity activity to achieve work design improvement.”

 Pazell will speak at the Safety Institute of Australia (Queensland Branch) 25th Annual Occupational Health and Safety Visions Conference, which will be held in Toowoomba from 21-23 May 2017. For more information visit the conference website.