The 2021 National Ergonomics Conference and Ergo Expo is Back! Here’s What You Need To Know As You Head to Las Vegas
Ergonomics is the study of how work task demands match employees’ physical capabilities. Tasks that are poorly designed put stress on workers, potentially leading to workplace injuries and accidents, which needlessly harm employees and employers—physically, emotionally and financially.
In fact, according to the most recent Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index, workplace accidents related to ergonomic factors cost employers almost $50 billion each year.
To further highlight the latest trends and effectiveness of today’s risk management programs, from November 2 to 4, 2021, the National Ergonomics Conference (NEC) and ErgoExpo (ErgoExpo) will be held to offer insights into ways risk management programs can cut down losses, while keeping employees safe.
New Focus Areas for 2021
According to Alan Hedge, professor in the department of design and environmental analysis at Cornell University, and program chair for the ErgoExpo conference, since the inception of modern ergonomics the focus has been to analyze all aspects of workplaces as a human-technology system.
“Ergonomics knowledge has developed and can improve risk assessment and prediction methods,” Hedge said.
In addition to the usual topics the conference will address how to manage the new workplace risks posed by pandemics, including the psychological stress aspects associated with this workplace threat.
“The vision for this year’s conference is to present state-of-the-art information to successfully manage ergonomics programs, especially given the unusual work climate that has resulted from the pandemic,” Hedge said.
ErgoExpo attendees will receive a program containing up-to-date ergonomics information on how to manage their ergonomics programs and practices, whether workers are at home or in their normal workplace, given the unusual work climate that we now have.
As Hedge explained, this conference is unique in providing attendees with in-depth one-hour sessions for practitioners to present detailed information on ergonomic successes, failures, and future possibilities.
For example, one of the ErgoExpo workshops will feature speakers from major technology companies who will address issues of post-COVID workplace design.
As National Ergonomics Conference presenter David Brodie, CPE, ergonomist lead, NA health and safety domain at Cargill explained, one of the most important developments over the past few years is the advancement and integration of technology into the health and safety field.
“For ergonomics, this has resulted in innovation on how the work is done in the field and the office, as well as how that data can drive quantifiable change,” Brodie said.
“One of the key goals of the agenda that we have pulled together for the [conference] is to show the integration of technology with the key component of ergonomics – humans.”
This year’s ErgoExpo committee embraced to goal of making sure everyone can find valuable content during each hour of the event. “Our tracks provide that breadth, and our speakers provide the depth,” Brodie said.
“We have added a new track this year called ‘Advances in Ergonomics Technologies’ to highlight the key innovations we are seeing in the industry that are driving the ergonomics field forward,” he said. ”The goal is to make sure our content and our vendors continue to evolve with the field to give attendees the most valuable experience possible.”
Trends to Note
According to Craig Karasack, CSP, ARM, product director of manufacturing technology and ergonomics, risk control services, at Liberty Mutual, while ergonomics may be getting more attention lately, leading risk managers have long appreciated the important role it plays in preventing workplace injuries and accidents, and their resulting direct and indirect costs.
As such, Karasack said all risk managers should be aware of the ergonomic ramifications of several key social trends. These include:
Working from home – As companies continue to largely delay the date employees will return to the office to do the evolving COVID pandemic, they should help employees work safely from home. From the proper height of work desks and monitors to correct sitting postures and the need for breaks, education is a key way employers can help employees work safely.
Returning/new workers – As companies reopen from COVID-19-related closures, or change models in response to pandemic surges, employers should carefully evaluate work tasks in light of the physical condition of employees who may have spent months at home.
“Experienced workers who were capable of established work tasks may need to have those procedures temporarily refined to help them ease back to work safely,” Karasack said.
New hires too may have been de-conditioned by months at home, or may be unaccustomed to a job’s physical demands, especially if they are new to the company or industry. As a result, employers across all sectors should evaluate the ergonomics of work tasks to make sure today’s employees can safely perform them.
An aging workforce – Demographics and other social trends are causing individuals to work later in life. In general, older workers have fewer workplace accidents, but often take longer to recover and return to work. This reality makes it even more important for employers to design workflows that can be safely done by a range of current and potential employees.
The power of AI in ergonomics – Artificial intelligence can make a real difference in understanding and improving the safety of work tasks. AI motion-capture technology allows employers to quickly and easily evaluate the likelihood of employee injury from a physical task, and suggests changes to the work task that make it safer.
The advancement of technology – Wearable sensors are evolving to potentially meet specific risks, such as exoskeletons or temperature sensors. “However, there is scant scientific evidence documenting the efficacy of specific wearables devices,” Karasack said.
“Research on their effectiveness has not caught up with their development. Risk managers, therefore, should carefully consider the claims made by any wearable device before deploying it across their organization to meet a specific safety need.”
ErgoExpo presenter Brock Anderson, owner and principal ergonomist at Ergo-ology said there is an additional trend of many employees being placed in charge of ergonomics who are not being educated in the space.
As a result, most companies are influenced by a boilerplate package that a consulting firm is selling vs. thinking about their unique situation and selecting (a la carte) specific efforts and programs which will be most fitting for their company goals and constraints.
“Because no two companies are identical, it is important to avoid relying on generic or boilerplate ergonomics programs and to strategically align your ergonomics program elements to fit your organization’s culture and needs,” Anderson said.
The Evolution of Ergonomic Technology
One key ergonomic trend gripping the industry is the increasing dependence on technology to help define and address ergonomic concerns in the workplace.
As Darren Chasteen, head of the ergonomic consulting practice at The Hartford explained, developing a tailored risk mitigation solution, which includes technological approaches, not only makes for a safer workplace, but it often leads to improved operations.
“That pro-active approach, which can often deliver a favorable ROI, is now more widely recognized by safety professionals and more sophisticated operations,” Chasteen said.
“To support that line of thinking there is a growing industry of technology solutions designed to mitigate or eliminate ergonomic risks.”
In today’s risk management programs, the partnership of technology and the guidance from a professional ergonomist is seen as a winning combination for bringing these solutions to the client.
In fact, the role technology is playing in mitigating losses due to ergonomic issues, is growing substantially.
Woody Dwyer, director, loss control, at AmTrust, pointed to strategies being used in the area of ergonomics that have helped risk management programs cut down on losses on the front end, rather than handling expenses on the back end.
Dwyer said these include such things as leveraging ergonomics in the design phase of manufacturing processes; believing ergonomics is a benefit to business and not a cost or expense; leveraging wearable and AI technology to evaluate and redesign work; and getting employers and engineers to understand how ergonomic risk contributes to the development of MSDs and strains/sprains.
“Over the last five years there have been three prominent technologies that have impacted ergonomics: wearable sensors, artificial intelligence (AI) and exoskeletons,” Dwyer said.
While exoskeleton technology is still being understood and implemented, exoskeletons are being used to reduce ergonomic risk in the workplace, help with medical treatment, and support quality of life challenges. In 2016, there were fewer than 10 exoskeleton vendors worldwide. Today, there are almost 30.
“In addition, wearable sensors and artificial intelligence are being utilized in the marketplace to evaluate ergonomic risk that can cause musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), and strains and sprains – which are approximately 35% of workplace injuries per the Bureau of Labor Statistics,” Dwyer said.
Wearable sensors are devices worn by an employee that measure movements and, via an algorithm, calculate an ergonomic risk score. AI uses a phone or tablet to video record an employee and calculates an ergonomic risk score.
“Both technologies have pros and cons, but the industry is expecting these devices to advance the field of ergonomics over the next five to 10 years,” Dwyer said.
Technology will allow ergonomists and non-ergonomists to evaluate more people (i.e., place sensors on everyone simultaneously), faster and use with empirical data.
“Gone will be the manual observational methods of the 1990s and 2000s,” Dwyer said. “Ergonomics and employers can spend less time evaluating and more time on risk mitigating solutions.”
Increased availability of ergonomic data certainly allows for better decision making when proactively implementing solutions. But, as Chasteen pointed out, while data can provide leading indicators of risk, the human element is still important.
“Involving frontline employees and their supervisors into a team is a way that brings stakeholders together from all organizational levels and can lead to continuous process improvements,” Chasteen said.
The pandemic, technology and the aging workforce have all contributed to these more proactive trends within the ergonomic sphere.
According to Chasteen, the pandemic was and continues to act as a catalyst for change regarding acceptance of virtual online ergonomic solutions for both providers and end-users.
“In addition, the Internet of Things (IoT) and similar safety sensor-based technologies continue to build out solutions with growing data capture and analytic capabilities,” Chasteen said.
Ergonomics will continue to evolve to meet the challenges and realities facing employers and employees at any given time. For example, as supply chain concerns drive on-shore manufacturing or IoT trends change the way work is performed, Karasack said ergonomics will adapt and add value to workplaces reflecting these new realities.
“The responsiveness of ergonomics is clearly seen as it continued to add value when companies started working from home almost overnight in response to the pandemic,” Karasack said.
“As companies changed their models in response to COVID-19, ergonomists continued to add value by enabling companies to educate employees of safe home office set ups, or developing manufacturing lines featuring social distancing. Ergonomics will continue to evolve to meet the challenges and realities facing employers and employees at any given time.”
Brodie stressed that NEC attendees can expect to see companies, innovators, and experienced professionals providing both proven methods and new ideas on how to approach the challenges we see in the field of ergonomics.
“Learning, seeing, and connecting is critical for all of us to continuously improve, and the ability to do all this in person to bring all this information back to our workplaces is what makes this event special,” Brodie said.
“Attending NEC in November is an energizing event that allows attendees to prepare for the new year and how to set goals that will push their efforts in new directions.” &