Going green presents a great opportunity for ergonomic advancement, as Jessica Ellison and Danny Nou explain.

By integrating ergonomics into sustainability there is a huge opportunity for ergonomics professionals to capture attention in the boardroom. This visibility will help get programmes and solutions funded and bring ergonomics into strategic boardroom discussions, which can result in more proactive programmes. This will benefit not only employees but can triple the bottom line of the company.

Sustainability is an important trend for ergonomists because it will be around for a long time. The concept of creating economic value through environmental and social impact has come to the forefront in business around the world. The ‘green’ label has captivated corporate mindshare and corporate funding. Recently, the Hedge Funds Review showed that more the $13trillion has been invested globally in socially responsible companies that demonstrate strong sustainability practices. Investors are making an impact on the world by putting money into investments that are listed on the Dow Jones Sustainability Indexes or the FTSE4Good index series. Socially responsible investment funds like Calvert and Domini will buy shares only in socially responsible companies. This is affecting decisions in boardrooms around the world and driving change without resorting to the stick of regulation.

Corporations are even restructuring to organise for sustainability. Many Fortune 500 companies such as Google, Verizon and Ikea have corporate sustainability officers (CSO) and/or vice presidents of sustainability, according to the New York Times. The fact that sustainability is being given as much attention as the CEO, CFO or COO speaks to this movement’s longevity.

Corporate sustainability initiatives can provide many benefits to companies that voluntarily commit to the movement. The most obvious examples are the millions of dollars that have been saved. According to the MSNBC, Wal-Mart has shown that by improving the fuel efficiency of its fleet by one mile-per-gallon it could save between $35million and $50million. GreenBiz.com reported that Alcoa had implemented and energy reduction strategy that had already realised $20million in savings. In another example, the IRS won an award from Telework Exchange for a pilot telecommuting programme of 150 participants that reported real estate savings of $585,000. After all, if people work from home the organisation does not even need to construct a building.

In addition, companies are learning that practicing sustainability gives them a higher ability to recruit and retain top talent. A survey by Monster.com showed that 92 per cent of generation Y employees (people born between 1977 and 2002) are more likely to work for an environmentally friendly company. And according to a USA 2008 Workplace Insight Survey, Generation Y workers are willing to sacrifice six per cent of their salary to work for a green company as opposed to a traditional one, reported Cosemindspring.com just last year.

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Linking up with ergonomics

Ergonomics shows value by having a direct and positive financial impact on the company’s bottom line and affecting the lives of people by creating a more sustainable work environment. Ergonomists need to know how to market their programme internally and take advantage of the sustainability trend by making connections where they exist in both programmes.

These links can include people, corporate responsibility reports, green building certification and telecommuting programmes. Various ergonomic associations offer plenty of information on how to achieve these goals.

Darryl C. Hill is the president of American Society of Safety Engineers. He says, “Safety should be viewed as the cornerstone of the people component. In this context, sustainability means implementing and maintaining programmes that keep people safe, facilities intact, communities protected, supply chains secure and the organisation’s mission uninterrupted. Sustainable organisations are, by definition, safe organisations, and we play a key role in ensuring that safety.”

On its external corporate website Xerox states, “Xerox creates safe and efficient products, maintains a safe workplace for our people, supports health and wellness programmes and reduces injury and exposure to hazardous materials.”

Nintendo of America reported in its corporate sustainability responsibility report that it has an ergonomic task force focused on annual training of fixed and non-fixed workstations. On its corporate sustainability responsibility report, Hormel Foods noted that injury prevention was a key focus in its ergonomics programmes. The company even went as far as showing the soft tissue incident rate and its steady decline year by year. There are more examples, but the clear message is that the link between companies’ sustainable programmes and their ergonomic programmes is that both focus on employees and their well-being.

Right now more than 40,000 projects are participating in the commercial and institutional Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating systems. Organisations from all 50 states and 117 countries participate, according to the US Green Building Council.

A good ergonomic design is one that creates and maintains a flexible ergonomic environment that properly accommodates building users and promotes healthy, comfortable and productive work. Office ergonomics is a separate line item credit point in the indoor environment section of the LEED rating system, according to Alan Hedge, director of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Laboratory at Cornell University.

What is great for companies who already have an established ergonomics programme is that they simply need to document their efforts and possibly make a few small changes in order to qualify for this point. This is a great opportunity for ergonomists to start getting involved in the design phase and become more strategic and proactive to prevent injury rather than reactively dealing with employees once they are injured. This point further strengthens the role of ergonomics in supporting sustainability initiatives and focusing on environmental awareness.

Telecommuting is often a centrepiece of corporate sustainability programmes. CNN’s Money Report on the best ten companies to work for showed that 82 per cent of these organisations allowed their employees to telecommute at least 20 per cent of their time, and the top five have 80 to 86 per cent of their workforce regularly telecommuting. These programmes have been shown to reduce the carbon footprint of companies and increase productivity at the same time.

This disadvantage of telecommuting is that the ergonomic risk for computer-based employees are the same as the risks that employees in the corporate office. Many companies have not established a system to address the off-site ergonomic concerns, and some are struggling to devise cost-effective methods to address ergonomics in remote and home offices. However, regulations about workers compensation and rules from the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the European Union still apply to those who work outside of the corporate office. Therefore, it is important for companies to establish programmes that address ergonomics for workers in telecommuting programmes. Some agencies and groups already are recommending that ergonomics be included in the telecommuting policy, including the Environmental Protection Agency, Telecommute, Connecticut, Microsoft Business, the County of San Francisco and others.

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Future Links

This seems to be just the beginning of the link between ergonomics and sustainability. Other ideas where the link could be made include employee recruitment and retention. Organisations can publicise the fact that they make sure their employees have comfortable workstations that are designed with ergonomic principles in mind. Venues to announce the information include a company’s corporate sustainability responsibility, press releases and its website.

The industrial engineering focus on lean manufacturing also links up well with ergonomics and sustainability. Ergonomics can improve cycle time and lean metrics, which in turn drive improved safety and profit.

In the future there may be an opportunity to bring technologies together for ease of use, reporting and communication. For example, the tool may be able to assist home office workers in setting up their workstations ergonomically and help capture the true carbon footprint of the company by collecting data on the number of commute miles saved, along with energy and water use. Such information can influence sustainable practices in the home.

Ergonomics initiatives have many parallels with sustainability goals. The two can function effectively as an integrated programme rather than two distinct policies. Ergonomists should start by making an effort to find out who is leading sustainability at their company. You can introduce yourself, share this article and discuss possible common goals. Industry is going greener and sustainability offers a huge opportunity for ergonomists to sustain sustainability efforts and reap the benefit of being allied with such a strong and well-funded movement.

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Jessica Ellison is a principal consultant at Environment and Occupational Risk Management. She is a certified professional ergonomist and certified safety professional. She has published articles in Professional Safety: The Journal of the American Society of Safety Engineers and the International Journal of Industrial Ergonomists.

Danny Nou is a consulting specialist in EORM He received his B.S. and M.S. degrees in biological systems engineering from the University of California, Davis. He was also lead biomechanics researcher in the biomedical engineering department at Hokkiado University.

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