To help drive the very best outcomes for the management of office ergonomics there is merit in looking at the experiences of European and US companies. Jon Abbott explains.

Around the world the workplace is evolving. Our devices are changing at breakneck speed and our workplaces are changing too. Whereas homeworking has always been a concern the new agile working environment is creating new challenges. In our workforce we’ve seen a demographic shift. Millennials and generation Z are developing behaviours around technology use whilst still at school – these habits will be hard to break. These threats must be met, and across the world there are different approaches for tackling them.

Europe and the United States have two differing drivers for implementing ergonomics programs – I think Australian business can learn lessons from both.

The European Way

For many years Europe has been concerned with ergonomics risk. An EU Directive 89/391, the OSH ‘Framework Directive” requires each member country to manage ergonomics risk through regulation. The UK developed the Display Screen Equipment (DSE) Regulations 1992 (amended 2002) and employers have been bound by these regulations for the past 25 years.

The DSE regulations are very prescriptive. They require an employer to educate employees in the correct setup and interaction with their devices and environment. A self-assessment enables employers to identify employees who are experiencing discomfort or are otherwise at risk of harm.

I believe this is a tricky approach as the regulations may be interpreted literally. The training guidance explicitly shows how an employee adjusts their chair, monitor and other devices. For those employees who work from home or in an agile environment this training content may not be appropriate. Many city homeworkers often do not have the space, or the desire, for an office desk and chair. Many will work from their dining table, kitchen counter or couch – many will work like this and be comfortable, others will not.

My fear is that too many employers take their training requirements literally and forget that the prescriptive guidance of the DSE regulations is reinforced by their general Duty of Care which requires an adaptive approach to training that responds to the individual’s requirements and environment. I have often heard customers say “but that doesn’t follow the DSE regulations…”; there is little point in training an employee how to use a chair with five casters if they never use one.

I wholeheartedly agree with regulation. Regulation drives better outcomes; it raises awareness and helps organisations improve the health and welfare of their employees by providing a framework – this framework is perfect for organisations that do not necessarily have the in-house skills.

But, as I mentioned previously, regulation can also act as a restraining factor. By following the letter of the regulation organisations may inadvertently be restricting the extent of the benefits they could be achieving.

From the US Perspective

The US situation is somewhat different. The lack of a social healthcare makes ergonomics injuries expensive for an employer. Workers’ compensation insurance and healthcare are the main cost bearers of injury as an employee files a claim against their employer.

Money talks and, in my opinion, the US has a better motivator for improving employee comfort. Regulation can often be toothless, money and profits never are. Speedy diagnosis of harm and an effective remediation plan can often prevent discomfort from developing into an injury that is more expensive to manage in terms of worker productivity, healthcare and other indirect costs.

And for this reason I tend to see our US customers being much more focused on outcomes. More energy is invested in encouraging long-term employee behaviour change and supporting an employee to understand and manage their own risk factors. The downside is US programs tend to be reactive rather than proactive.

Reactive Programs Increase Employer Cost

A reactive program (often paper-based) means an employee will typically seek out assistance when their discomfort has reached an advanced stage. The employee will have little awareness of their condition and will not have been able to take steps to reduce their discomfort at an earlier stage.

In this instance I would assert that 80% of the burden of dealing with the issue is with the employer in a reactive ergonomics program. The cost of intervention, remediation and ongoing management is borne by the employer. The employee carries just 20% of the burden. Their input is to simply follow advice and guidance once the issue has been reported to the employer

Aim for a Proactive Program

A proactive program (often regulated) transforms this process. By increasing awareness employees are able to identify discomfort at an earlier stage and modify their behaviours or environment to improve their comfort.

I believe 80% of the burden is now with the employee. With better knowledge they are able to take measures to improve their wellbeing and take ownership of any discomfort they may be experiencing. The majority of issues can be successfully managed by the employee. The employer now carries just 20% of the burden of dealing with the issue. The employer is able to identify and provide intervention to those employees who genuinely need support.

As Australian ergonomics programs evolve I believe there is a significant opportunity to take the best of European and US experiences. A proactive program will always enable an employer to get ahead of any issues. Early identification and diagnosis is much more cost effective. By focusing on the tasks undertaken by each employee and delivering a targeted meaningful ergonomics strategy (similar to the US) we empower employees to self-manage into the future.

Cardinus Risk Management is a global leader in the development and implementation of ergonomics programs including the world’s most widely used online office ergonomics eLearning and self-assessment program, Healthy Working. Our customers include Fortune 500, government departments and other organisations across the world.

If you would like to discuss your program or would like pointers to improve your ergonomics provision please email [email protected].

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