Last week I gave a talk on “Designing a Worker-Centric Facility” at Promat 2013, the nation’s largest material handling equipment trade show. The audience was mostly safety professionals and ergonomists, in addition to some representatives from the insurance industry and government.
In the discussion that followed, I was struck by mixture of the genuine concern for people (workers, laborers, those vulnerable to injury) and the reality that management takes action only when a sufficient business case can be made—in today’s world, that means demonstrating a significant Return On Investment (ROI). Much of the discussion was devoted to how to make the case to management for, say, lift tables to avoid lower-back injuries, or for some way to help delivery drivers schlep beer kegs up and down stairwells without slipping and falling. Fascinating, real, very real stuff.
One participant expressed frustration at the fact that management seemed willing to fund interventions in ergonomics and safety only after a major incident or after workman’s comp claims got too high. It reminded me of a factory that fails to perform preventive maintenance because, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Why should the cost of workman’s comp be the measure against which safety and ergo equipment is purchased? When I purchased hearing protection for my boys to use in our woodworking shop, I didn’t calculate ROI.
Then I wondered how many executives would hesitate to install reasonable precautions against long-term injury if their children were the workers. That simple question, “what would I do if it were my child (or brother, or father)?” seems like a reasonable litmus test for action in matters difficult to quantify. I am not advocating going overboard here—nobody wins if the company wastes its resources and becomes unprofitable. But it seems that we are so far from this concern it isn’t even worth mentioning. Lift tables aren’t going to put anyone out of business, or even make them uncompetitive.
In the end, we were left grappling for just the right metric to justify such purchases. Some argued for workman’s comp, some for costs of high worker turnover.
How about using good judgment instead?