Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A Different Perspective on Ergonomics Assessment Tools

Selecting an ergonomic assessment tool ...

"Ergonomics assessment tools have been around for quite some time to help practitioners evaluate the risk in a job.

The goal of a well-designed assessment tool is to take the information that has been gained through research on the causes and impact of strain on the human system, and organize questions, calculations or data to help visualize and predict when this strain is reaching levels that could lead to work-related musculoskeletal disorders.

Over the past 30 or so years, a significant number of ergonomics assessment tools have been published in journals in an effort to advance the methods that we use to perform ergonomics evaluations. A short list of these tools would include: QEC, manTRA, RULA, REBA, HAL-TLV, OWAS, LUBA, OCRA, SNOOK tables and the NIOSH lifting equation. After trying out many of these tools personally and considering their usability, reliability and validity, a question came to mind on how the health and safety community perceives the usefulness of these ergonomics assessment tools.

To gain some insight into this question, I handed out a questionnaire to my audience while giving a talk on ergonomics assessment tools at the National Ergonomics Conference and Exposition (NECE) in Las Vegas. The survey included questions on whether the person was aware of various tools that have been published over the years, whether they used the tool and whether the tool has been established as a component of their companies ergonomics program.

Six tools bubbled to the top of the list as the most commonly used assessment processes. The NIOSH lifting equation was the most prominent tool, with 77 percent of the attendees recognizing it and 69 percent have experience using it. The SNOOK tables were close in recognition (62 percent), but used far less often (38 percent). RULA, REBA, the Strain Index and the Washington State checklists all were recognized by about half the group, and were used by an average of 40 percent of the audience. The remaining tools sporadically were recognized and seldom used. Interestingly, only NIOSH and SNOOK achieved any real level of use within the audience’s ergonomics programs (~40 percent).

As a consultant and ergonomist I had a double interest in learning where people were finding the tools that they used. Almost every consulting group has developed their own ergonomics assessment tools, and I was curious if the audience relied heavily on the expertise of these groups or went searching for their own assessment options.

The most common location where people looked for assessment tools was the internet (77 percent), followed closely by creating their own tools (69 percent) and then by finding the tools in research articles (58 percent). Only 35 percent of the attendees noted that they obtained the tools that they use from a consulting group. The concern with these results is that the majority of the audience relied on the internet or their own resources to obtain/develop their ergonomics assessment tools, and a much smaller percentage looked to ergonomics research.

To add to the concern and complicate the results, 80 percent of the responses indicated that validation of the tool is an important consideration. Finding resources on the internet, creating your own assessment tools and even looking to some of the tools developed by consultants, all are methods that may not lead towards truly validated approaches. Proper testing of tools is required to ensure the content and context validity of its design and output, and reliability is an equally critical component for any assessment process that is used within an ergonomics program.

Research should be the primary resource that an individual should tap if they are searching for a valid tool to help their ergonomics process. Care should be taken here as well to ensure that a tool that was presented in a single journal article was subsequently tested and validated in additional research projects. On the positive side, the six tools that bubbled to the top of the list for recognition and use are well documented and validated assessment tools."    (Continued via EHS Today, David Brodie)    [Ergonomics Resources]

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