What “I Love Lucy” taught us about Ergonomics

Extended reaches hurt people--and profits!Picture in your mind the 1952 episode of “I Love Lucy,” when Lucy and her pal Ethel took jobs at a chocolate factory.  Not only was the packaging conveyor line “machine paced,” it was (as part of the skit) unpredictable. Ultimately the stress and pressure brought about by the machine pacing and unpredictability proved hilariously disastrous for the pair, and the skit has entertained millions around the world.

Over my 28-years as a practicing Ergonomist, my peers and I in the science of Ergonomics frequently identify “inability to control the work pace” as a significant risk factor for soft tissue illnesses and injuries.  It is important to consider this risk because stress such as this can be a precursor to physical symptoms.  These risk factors are most easily recognized in (but not limited to) assembly, meat processing, packaging, and other facilities where workers stand stationary or in a small area while “something” moves by on a production line.

However, unlike the skit, which was filmed in a real-life chocolate factory, it is never a laughing matter when an employee must keep pace with a process, because work-related injuries and illnesses are costly to both employees and employers.

Employees suffer due to  pain, loss of mobility, loss of ability to perform everyday activities, and when involving time away from work, can be financially impacting.  Employers are responsible for the medical costs of work-related injuries and illnesses, and the monies to pay these costs must come from profits or from operations, services, and/or sales.

Office workers need help, too!

Now consider office-based environments.  There are no moving assembly lines, but rather neat (usually) and climate-controlled buildings filled with identical cubicle and office workstations.  No moving parts except for (possibly) an adjustable sit/stand desk and the usual accessories.  Since nothing is actually “moving,” those office employees can control the pace of their work, right?  Or can they?

My Ergonomics research as a graduate student focused on office support staff across campus.  I selected employees whose jobs required computer use and collected two key pieces of data: the cumulative time per day spent working/typing on their computers, and self-reported body part discomfort.  My results found that employees who spent four or more cumulative hours per day working on their computers reported statistically significant greater body part discomfort, which is a leading indicator of the risk for future soft tissue illnesses and injuries.

But universities are not inbound call centers, where as soon as one call ends, another comes in.  Nor are they professional services firms, where assistants support several professionals, and where deadlines are often set on short notice by the professionals they support.  An assistant may have a “slow” morning but have to work several hours late on an unanticipated “rush” request.

The work performed by these assistants is not machine paced, but just like in Lucy’s skit, they cannot control either the pace or the predictability of their work.  These risk factors can affect an employee’s ability to work safely, accurately and productively.

Happy Employees
Comfortable employees are happy and more productive!

Companies that take care of their employees via good workplace and process design and promptly address employee concerns can gain safety and productivity improvements, plus a competitive advantage in the acquisition and retention of skilled employees at all levels of the organization.

To learn more about how to make your employees safer and your company more successful, click on this link to go to the QP3 ErgoSystems website, and contact us to learn more.  I bet Lucy would approve!

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