Case studies of participatory ergonomic programs

In brief

  • In this study, the researchers followed four worksites that used a participatory ergonomic (PE) approach to prevent musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). Although the PE approach reduced exposure to stresses on the body in workers, there were limited effects on physical effort or pain among workers.
  • Organizational context and competing interests need to be considered when implementing a PE program. In particular, attention should be paid both to production and to occupational health and safety concerns.

Why was this study done?

Implementing a workplace ergonomic program is one way to help prevent and control musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), injuries to the body’s soft tissues. Sometimes such programs use a participatory ergonomics (PE) approach where workers, supervisors and others (called an ergonomic change team) are involved in designing and implementing solutions. Yet past studies of ergonomic change teams have shown mixed results. Using a multiple case study approach, this study examined changes in four worksites that implemented a PE program.

How was the study done?

Researchers examined the process, implementation and the effects of PE interventions at four worksites, each compared to an equivalent group that did not receive the program. The worksites included a courier company, a garment plant, a large auto parts factory and a small auto parts line. The ergonomic change teams documented the changes that were implemented. The research team evaluated the intensity of the changes. The process evaluation was based on worksite observations and interviews with about 90 people. Researchers looked at the interventions’ effects using a questionnaire that measured items such as physical effort and pain among workers.

What did the researchers find?

The ergonomic change teams had challenges in obtaining employees’ time and management commitment. In addition, the worksites faced substantial production pressures. The ergonomic change teams implemented an average of 15 changes per site over a 10- to 20- month period. Researchers also noted that employees did not report substantial changes in physical effort or pain.

What are some strengths and weaknesses of the study?

This study adds to the knowledge of how to better construct PE programs in different kinds of workplaces. Using a multiple case study approach allowed the researchers to examine common themes across sites. Some limitations were that it was resource-intensive to evaluate the PE interventions. Also, a longer time period may be needed to observe substantial changes, and PE programs need to be better integrated with worksite production planning.

Publication Information

Title: 

Reflecting on a program of participatory ergonomics interventions: A multiple case study

Author(s): 

Cole D, Theberge N, Dixon S, Rivilis I, Neumann WP, Wells R

Journal: 

Work, 2009: vol. 34, no. 2, pp. 161-178