It’s been twenty years since the implementation of six wide-ranging workplace health & safety regulations which came be known as the ‘Six Pack’. These regulations presented many organisations with a significant challenge: what do we mean by risk management? This approach of assessing, reducing and monitoring risk – what do we have to do? Many organisations picked on some of the basic ergonomics questions, particularly where specific duties appeared around manual handling and display screen equipment and it was these Regulations that have had the biggest effect on ergonomics. The requirements for organisations to consider people and the effect of their work on health are central to both sets of Regulations.
Ergonomists suddenly found that they were in demand in two specific ways. Firstly, by organisations (usually large ones) who understood the basic principles of prediction as being central to prevention. Secondly by lawyers and plaintiffs (now claimants) who suddenly found that a diverse range of peculiar conditions (now generally called Musculoskeletal Disorders or MSDs) might be associated with their work and might make the plaintiffs eligible for compensation.
From my perspective, the effect on ergonomists for the first ten years after the Regulations came into effect, was a diversion from the main rationale of the ergonomist – to make work fundamentally ‘better’ into a discipline that became interested in blame. Who caused the injury? Did the injury even exist? Could the company do more? These questions diverted many ergonomists into exploring questions such as the nature of ‘RSI’ and its prevalence, the way in which organisations could or could not predict injury, and determining who was to blame.
This emphasis of the ergonomist as the expert helped provide work and some justification for the discipline but may fundamentally have missed the point of ergonomics. As a discipline, ergonomics is concerned with making worker better which includes making it safer and more satisfying, more efficient and improving the sense of self-worth. In the 1980s ergonomics looked to improve the workplace and prevent accidents, in the 1990s and early 2000s it was about determining blame in a civil or criminal setting.
Fortunately, a more rational view started to prevail from around 2000, with a recognition that MSDs were a fact of life. Ergonomists became involved in prevention and rehabilitation; improving design and working with users to ensure that the workplace, work equipment and job specification produces a safe and fulfilling activity. Demonstrating compliance becomes an output that is required but is not absolutely central to the design. Organisations such as the BBC World Service created projects that focused on welfare as well as ergonomics (the ‘People Project’). In this project, the focus was on delivering a healthy workplace, working with a combination of occupational health, health & safety, and ergonomics specialists. Our success was not measured in whether all the DSE assessments had been carried out; rather it was about did people demonstrably feeling better (in the early days of the project, a huge survey was conducted with staff covering a whole range of well-being issues). The programme focused on training, support and delivering tailored solutions to staff. Whilst this sort of programme had been undertaken by other organisations prior to the introduction of the Six Pack, the new Regulations provided a focus and a drive that persuaded more senior managers to engage in ergonomics issues.
Overall then, was the Six Pack a benign force for ergonomics? On balance, I see overwhelming evidence that it has delivered a better work environment. Not just in terms of crude reactive measures such as the number of people killed or seriously injured at work. Companies are looking to move beyond compliance and recognise that applying sound ergonomics principles can deliver competitive advantage. It is pleasing to see this more considered view.
One of my first jobs as an ergonomist in the early 80s was to work on a Department of Trade & Industry project run by Professor Brian Shackel. The project was to provide sound evidence of the business case for ergonomics; how ergonomics principles can be applied to save money and deliver efficiencies. It is fair to say that the Six Pack has largely rendered these debates irrelevant. Civil and criminal cases have drawn attention to the costs of getting ergonomics wrong. Fewer organisations tolerate poor design and the costs associated with poor ergonomics. This has been coupled with a ‘fetishisation’ of design by companies such as Apple, in which design coupled with usability represents all that is good.
Twenty years on, arguably, the model of risk used by the ergonomics and health & safety community is influencing all aspects of risk management including financial and commercial views on risk. As ergonomists we understand risk as a predictive tool. Organisations struggle with the challenges laid down by the UK Government’s management of risk material. How do we identify, quantify, reduce and monitor risk? How do we determine our risk appetite and which risks we are prepared to tolerate? We can help organisations with the construction and management of risk registers and provide assurance tools to determine whether risks are being proportionately managed.
In 1992 it would have been difficult to anticipate the profound effects the Six Pack would have on ergonomics. The challenges and opportunities provided have helped propel ergonomics into the heart of decision making in many organisations. As for the next 20 years, the move to go beyond compliance and to provide integrated risk management systems will continue. All of these systems will, at a fundamental level, have people at their centre. As long as people are at the centre and continue to work, then ergonomics will have a role to play. We will still be engaged as expert witnesses but we will also work in many other areas of corporate governance and design, so that in 20 years time we will have reached a position in which ergonomics thinking is institutionalised in corporate bodies.