Although it's the violations that make headlines, there are plenty of businesses out there that take ergonomics seriously. In recent years, companies from coast to coast have made great headway in establishing ergonomics programs to protect their working associates from costly and devastating injuries.
Traditionally, ergonomics has been all about adapting the job and equipment to the worker. So the focus has been on developing tools and techniques to reduce fatigue, repetitive motion, and physical strain. That approach has obvious merit, and we have yet to exhaust all the possibilities.
But maybe it's time to consider the problem from another perspective—an approach that might be described as traditional ergonomics in reverse. Instead of trying to shape jobs to the workers, why not try better matching workers to the demands of specific jobs? This strategy, which we call "revergonomics," may represent an untapped gold mine in win-win-win job performance. (We are indebted to our former partner Steve Mulaik for coining the term "revergonomics" as well as his support in analyzing the attributes—ergonomic and otherwise—of a high-performing order picker.)
A case in point
Consider the example of order pickers in a modern distribution center. We hire picker candidates who can pass muster on a few rudimentary criteria. We train them on the basics. Then we coach them for improvement. They either make the grade, or they don't. We let go those who don't, hire a gaggle of replacements and begin the cycle all over again.
This is an incredibly expensive, time-consuming, and generally ineffective way to build a high-performing order fulfillment organization. When a facility employs hundreds and hundreds of people—not only as pickers, but also as packers, replenishers, material handlers, folders, baggers, and the like—there are almost untold opportunities to match the wrong people with the jobs.
We think there is a better way. What we're suggesting is that employers pay closer attention to the match between candidates' characteristics—including ergonomic factors—and job characteristics during the screening process. Instead of assessing only general intelligence, arrest records, and evidence of substance abuse, why not also look for the things that will likely lead to real success on the job?
For example, here are some attributes that can make for high-performing order pickers, each of which can be tested and measured: dexterity, hand-eye coordination, spatial awareness, color recognition, oral English comprehension (much more important than written comprehension in day-to-day interaction), technology aptitude, and fitness. There are also physical attributes that may come into play (such as height in a range that allows the person to work easily at low levels—bending and/or kneeling—and at high levels without needing a stool or ladder).
A similar list could be created for other active work assignments in supply chain operations. The point is, fitting the candidates to the jobs is likely to lead to a safer, more productive operation.
Play it safe
Of course, you can't do this arbitrarily. You need to validate the screening tests you want to use. You can do that by looking at and testing existing high-performing employees to ensure their characteristics track with the specific demands of a given position. There's no intent to be discriminatory in this process. Physical size—within reason—does not by itself exclude anyone from meeting any (or all) of the listed criteria. Neither does age. And gender confers no particular advantage or disadvantage. There is every intent to provide appropriate opportunity for individuals of all sizes, shapes, and descriptions by matching them with jobs that they fit—and that fit them. When criteria and screening/testing are even-handedly and fairly applied—and when other positions better suited to an applicant might be offered—this risk and the conditions that might lead to bad publicity or legal challenges are significantly mitigated.
Furthermore, everyone wins. The employee has a more-than-fighting chance at succeeding at the job. Management gets a higher proportion of winners than from random minimal-screening hiring. Shareholders/owners reap the obvious financial benefits of a system that cuts turnover costs and results in a smaller, but more productive workforce.
As for the benefits themselves, it's a slam dunk to get 10 to 20 percent greater throughput from a smaller, more capable workforce, and the payoff can be even greater. Quantifying the savings that result from reduced turnover is tougher, but here's an example of how the numbers might look. Assume it costs $18,000 to source, recruit, and train a new employee (a realistic number, with many industries reporting even higher costs), and turnover of 30 percent in a workforce of 250. Reducing the annual turnover to 10 percent would add nearly a million dollars ($900,000) to the bottom line.
It's about time
A couple of generations ago, we hired warehouse labor to handle pallets and cases on the basis of apparent brute strength. We're suggesting that there's a more effective and enlightened 21st century approach.
In short, we think it's time. Time to do a better job of figuring out what it takes to succeed at order picking or packing, and then hiring people with those inherent traits for the positions. Time to think longer-term about hiring strategies, rather than just focusing on filling an open slot. Time to take better advantage of all that we know about ergonomics to build win-win-win organizational/staffing solutions.
That doesn't mean that we should abandon traditional ergonomics initiatives. There's still more we can do in that department. But maybe it's time to incorporate "revergonomics" into our business vocabulary—and our business practices.