Archive for May, 2011
By 2016, workers age 65 and over are expected to account for 6.1 percent of the total labor force, up sharply from their 3.6 percent share in 2006, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This demographic shift means companies will continue to benefit from the experience of seasoned employees, but likely will need to address a new set of ergonomic needs. This week, we spoke to Blake McGowan, Ergonomic Engineer with Humantech Inc., to understand what companies can do to maintain the productivity of their most valuable workers.
GT: For those who aren’t familiar with the term, can you quickly explain, ‘What is ergonomics’?
BM: Ergonomics is a science focused on designing the workstation characteristics to match the worker’s capabilities and make that job intuitive for the worker to do. We try to address things that are in within an arm’s reach, such as a control, a computer screen, a materials handling task, or an assembly line.
GT: Why do companies invest in ergonomics?
BM: Traditional reasons are reducing injuries and injury costs. A company might have high number of injuries, high frequency of injuries or a high amount of worker compensation costs, and they realize the root cause of that is the design of the work station and what the person is able to do.
Many companies also have started to realize that when we apply the principles of ergonomics in a systematic way, there are all these extra benefits, such as improving operator performance, improving safety, reducing injuries, increasing the productivity of a facility and enhancing the quality of a product. So that’s what gets people motivated to do this and I would say the majority of the Fortune 500 companies understand that and use it as a business advantage. It’s a way to cut costs and enhance performance.
GT: How do you know if you need to invest in ergonomics for an aging workforce?
BM: From a pure population standpoint, we know from the Bureau of Labor statistics that the age category of people under age 25 is decreasing so we won’t have as many people coming into the workforce. And on the other side of it, we know that people who are close to retirement are going to be forced to continue working because they may not have that financial stability; their 401K may no longer look the way they want it to, and who knows if Social Security will be there in the future? Some of the statistics show that there will be people working into their 70’s and some of those individuals will have to do manual labor.
A lot of companies are also beginning to realize that they need to have experienced workers in their organization in order to be successful. These are the experienced people in the workplace; who have been with the company for many years, who understand the unwritten worlds, how to solve complex problems, so we definitely need to figure out ways to keep them.
GT: How do the ergonomic needs of older workers compare to those of younger workers?
BM: When we start to talk about the aging population, we need to first define is who we’re talking about. Many people are surprised to learn that by about age 45, we start to experience changes in our physiological systems. Our strength, speed, coordination, vision, memory and information processing all are affected by the aging process. The reason why we need to understand these things is because they will have implications on how we work.
GT: What are some of the areas that ergonomics can address?
BM: It could be as simple as providing people with correct working heights or changing the way workstations are lit. One of the things that happens as we start to age is that we’re not able to see things as well. What might have worked well with the lights on the ceiling when we’re 20 may not be the case when we turn 55. So there might be a need to modify the workplace so we provide each person in each age category with task lighting. That way they can see everything in the right way.
It also could be a lot more complex, such as reducing strength requirements for job tasks. That would be a big deal, especially in heavy manufacturing. The fact that our strength might be decreasing doesn’t mean that we’re no longer a valuable member of the company. What we can do is to use some very good principles to help this person be as effective as possible. For example, the mere step of providing someone the objects that they’ll be handling in a materials handling situation at the correct height to ensure that that person can extend their career and continue to add value to the company. If we don’t design that material handling task for that experienced person, we’re know that over time they’re more likely to get injured, which would take them away from work.
The goal of ergonomics is to design for what people do well so we have to get to that baseline first. The next thing is how to improve our systems that the extra 5 or 10 percent to address the needs of our most experienced, valuable workers.
Blake McGowan is a Managing Consultant and Ergonomic Engineer with Humantech Inc. He’ll be presenting solutions for addressing the ergonomic needs of older workers in NAEM’s “Ergonomics of an Aging Workforce” webinar on May 24.
What role should government play in sustainability?
First, let’s frame the context. In my last Green Tie blog, we explored the varied definitions of sustainability and the need for context to have meaningful dialogue. Your feedback confirmed one key point: clear definition and clear context are paramount as sustainability can take on a narrow or broad meaning—we need to be precise to generate productive change.
For purposes of looking at government’s role, I’ll look at sustainability in a broad context and include the social, fiscal and environmental aspects. Clearly, this short piece cannot do justice to this broad subject, but it does start the discussion–Please let me know your thoughts on government’s role.
Simply, government’s role in society is to prevent harm and promote the common good. I submit that government’s role for sustainable society, sustainable economics and a sustainable environment falls within these bounds. Of course, the devil is always in the details- so let’s look at these two further.
Government typically relies on laws and regulations to set minimum standards, designed to prevent bad things from happening. Minimum wage standards establish a compensation floor for workers. The recently published Federal Trade Commission Green Guides outline the practices to prevent consumer deception in environmental claims. Emission limitations establish acceptable discharge levels to prevent an unhealthy environment. The Securities and Exchange Commission established financial reporting requirements to prevent fraudulent and misleading information to the public. There are many more examples of how government uses regulatory authority to set the boundaries of behavior to prevent bad things from happening.
Promoting the common good
In many cases, government tries to use the same technique for promoting the common good as they use to prevent harm–regulation. Economically, the federal government regulates through fiscal and monetary policy, thereby affecting economic growth and employment. Environmentally, regulation has resulted in curbside recycling in many jurisdictions to reduce waste to landfill and promote recycling.
However, if government wants to accelerate progress toward promoting the common good, government cannot rely on regulations alone. The establishment of voluntary measures and education can be key roles for government. In many cases, relying on methods other than regulation is outside of government’s comfort zone. We are beginning to see a trend toward government encouraging people to do the right thing through voluntary means. These include:
- Create incentives: People change their behavior when they have an incentive. They want to do the right thing to get the reward. Streamlined and expedited permitting for projects incorporating sustainable development practices, such as LEED, will encourage proponents to invest in improved practices to avoid extensive permitting. Tax credits for energy efficiency retrofits and alternative energy generation …
- Eliminate barriers: When government becomes aware of barriers to implement new practices, such as land use requirements restricting residential wind turbines installation, the jurisdiction must move quickly to remove the barriers. Technologies and practices are continuing to evolve and government needs to be agile to get out of the way of implementation.
- Develop human capital: A bill was recently introduced in the California legislature to create a Clean Technology and Renewable Energy Job Training program to expand a trained green workforce. An education populace is a prerequisite for the necessary behavioral changes and government can provide both the content and the delivery. Reducing energy demand is often not implemented because people don’t understand the importance or don’t understand what measures to take.
- Invest in technical innovation: Technology development usually takes money and the government can either invest directly in such things a contracted research and development or indirectly through tax credits and rebates. Government investment in many cases is the determining factor in project viability. Increasing energy efficiency, biofuels, wind and energy storage are all ripe for innovation.
- Lead the way by example: Government should be the showcase of sustainable practices. Government infrastructure should incorporate cutting-edge practices, such as natural lighting, alternative energy and xeroscape. Business practices should be leading edge to demonstrate viability and benefits (telecommuting anyone?)
What do you think government should do to promote a sustainable economy, society and environment?
Mark Posson is Operations Director for Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company in Sunnyvale, Calif. During his free time, Mark enjoys fishing, hiking, biking, racquetball, public service and spending time with his family.
Apart from picking the right school and the right interview clothes, one of the biggest decisions you’ll need to make as an EHS professional is what EMIS (Environmental Management Information System) to use. This decision will not only make or break your department’s effectiveness, but will also greatly impact your staffing, budget, and ability to integrate with the rest of the business. In fact, it may set you on the right course to career success.
Today, EMIS have expanded beyond just environmental management systems and compliance. They now touch everything your department does including health and safety, auditing, training, and corporate sustainability metric tracking. An effective EMIS is a critical component of most thriving EHS departments. Most companies invest a tremendous amount of time, money and “brain sweat” into these systems. So how come some systems are a lot more successful than others?
Here’s the secret: it all starts with choosing the system that is the best fit for your needs. Choose correctly and your life becomes easier, your staff becomes more effective, and you’ll lose 10 pounds (ok, that last part may not be true). Choose incorrectly and your workload doubles, your staff spends time running in circles, you’ll spend $$$$, and you’ll gain 10 pounds (again, not proven, but the stress eating will likely do this).
Don’t get me wrong, configuration and implementation are also very important. But, if you choose the wrong system, you’ll spend far more time and money on those two activities than desired and you’ll likely never end up with the EMIS you need or want. Choose the system that is the best fit for your needs and those two steps become much much easier.
On the new NAEM portal, I’ve recently co-authored a white paper with Laura Murphy, from KMI, that lays out eight essential steps for getting this big decision right. To see the full paper, you’ll need to visit the website (and yes, that is a blatant plug for logging in and exploring the new content posted there), but I wanted to use this forum to discuss some of the advice you might have for those who are approaching this process.
What are some of the mistakes you’ve made in going through the EMIS selection process? What would you do again? What would you avoid?
I recently participated in a discussion among senior environmental, health and safety (EHS) managers about how to attract recent college graduates and young professionals into the EHS management field. It occurred to me that this discussion, like most others on this topic, consisted exclusively of a bunch of Boomers, whose perspective and assumptions may not reflect those of the Millennial Generation they were discussing.
The careers of the people in the room and the EHS management profession began at the same time and grew in tandem. It as exciting for us. There were new regulations. Public expectations were increasing. We had top management attention and support, and hefty budgets. We were able to build programs, conduct research on and deploy new technologies, and establish new career paths. Boomers have experienced the EHS profession as a growing, dynamic, and prominent discipline within our companies. A career spent in EHS management had great appeal to us.
But, over the past decade, changes in our profession have been much more subtle and incremental. I wonder, now that EHS management is a mature and recognized component of business management, does the Millennial Generation view our field as less exciting and innovative than we did?
Sure, society faces major challenges ranging from loss of biodiversity, global warming, deteriorating ocean ecosystems, deforestation and limited water resources. But, when it comes to core EHS management programs, such as auditing, training, and compliance, have we lost our luster in the eyes of the Millennial Generation?
Should we begin to shift our EHS career paradigm to a model designed around bright, capable, young people who are more interested in mastering the basics of our profession and then moving on to careers in other parts of the business? If so, it would have a profound impact on how we manage our people and programs.
Am I “out in the ozone” in my thinking, as we Boomers used to say when we were kids? What have been your observations and experiences?