Ergonomics And Economics

Why ergonomics makes a lot of sense from a dollars-and-cents standpoint and why it may be inevitable because of legislation.

By M. Franz Schneider

There are two reasons to consider ergonomic issues during the design of office environments and in the purchase of office equipment. One reason is that dollars spent on improving the ergonomic acceptability of offices have an excellent return on investment. The other reason is that, because of the possibility of legislation, there may be no other choice.

A major incentive to purchase ergonomic equipment and to design ergonomic environments is the improved performance and well-being of office workers. Office automation (OA) has been associated with increased absenteeism, reports of muscular discomfort, eyestrain, and reductions in job satisfaction. There are many factors involved, including task design and the way OA technology is introduced.

One of the major components of the problems associated with the introduction of office automation is the computer screen. The computer screen demands that the user work within a very restricted posture range. Unlike a book, a computer screen cannot be read from the side. nor from above, and is difficult to move around on the desk top. Consequently, the relationship of the user to the computer is frozen.

The postures that result are not normal for the human. Posture is not a given position of the body; there is no such thing as a single good posture. Posture is a dynamic process of movement. If the computer screen freezes a person into only one posture, the result is discomfort, hence the requirement for ergonomic furniture. Although adjustable furniture is important to accommodate the differences in body size between users, another important aspect is to permit any individual to adjust his/her work environment throughout the day, allowing for different tasks and different postures. Adjusting posture throughout the work day by using adjustable furniture reduces postural discomfort.

Ignoring ergonomic requirements has a substantial cost. The large number of people reporting discomfort while using computer equipment has resulted in many research studies and investigations. These investigations and the continued high user complaint rate has prompted the development of guidelines in Canada and legislation in the United States regulating the design of office equipment and the duration of video display terminal work. Currently, approximately half of the legislatures in the U.S. have bills passed or in review that regulate the use of video display equipment. Some of the legislation carries fines of up to $1,000 per day per worker for contravention of workstation regulations.

There are several issues related to a regulatory approach to the improvement of office environments: First, restrictions in hours of exposure to VDT work limits the effective work time of employees and usable time of computer equipment. Second, it costs money to police the regulations. Third, and most importantly, if the improvements in operational effectiveness that can be achieved through the office environment were better understood by decision-makers in the business community, a legislative approach would be unnecessary.

Studies And Results

Over the last five years a study on the relationship between ergonomic office environments and productivity has been underway. The sample group includes managerial, technical, and clerical workers from a broad cross-section of North American industry. In the sample group approximately 4 per cent of managerial workers and approximately 60 per cent of clerical workers have direct work-station access to a computer terminal. The total study population of VDT workers is approximately 4,000 persons.

In the survey, workers using computer equipment, specifically video display equipment, more than one hour per day reported twice as many complaints of neck and shoulder discomfort as coworkers who did not use VDT equipment. VDT-workers reported eye strain three times as often as workers using conventional office equipment. VDT operators also had higher rates of absenteeism, reported less job satisfaction and, at entry-level positions, had a higher turnover rate (approaching 30 per cent a year) than their co-workers.

During the course of the study, specific groups were selected for further analyses. In one case, a group of 123 office workers were selected to fur-ther investigate the impact of ergonomic furniture on productivity. For eight months preceding the design changes workers kept diaries of time spent on various tasks. The absenteeism rate of the group was monitored as well, as was the percent of time the person was actively using computer equipment. The number of errors per document was anaiyzed, as well as the mean time to complete various clerical func!ions. The workers were given checklists which they completed every half hour, describing their postural comfort and perceived well-being.

Management workers completed time diaries and rating sheets evaluating their own effectiveness and the effectiveness of employees directly within their supervisory responsibility.

During the design change process the workers participated in the selection of furniture through user evaluations, development of layouts, and determination of finishes and accessories. The performance measures were continued for six months after the design changes.

Results were impressive: Monday morning absenteeism dropped from 7 per cent to less than 1 per cent. Over-all absenteeism fell from 4 per cent to less than 1 per cent. Error rates in document preparation fell from 25 per cent to 11 per cent. The percent of the day computer equipment was in use increased from 60 to 86. These results signified an increase in active work time of more than 40 per cent. Reports of postural discomfort showed a marked drop in frequency, severity and duration.

The subjective ratings that managers made of their own performance indicated that more than 70 per cent felt that their effectiveness had improved "very much." Ninety per cent subjectively rated the productivity of their employees as "much improved."

Because the study was completed over a one-year time frame, the "observer effect" was minimized. Many productivity improvements reported in other studies are crititicized as being merely an indication of the increased attention given to workers. In this study many of the same questions were asked in several different ways to determine the consistency of the responses. The first eight months of the pre-design phase did not show an improvement in performance, which should have been indicated by an observer effect. The productivity improvements also endured after the study team was no longer on-site; a follow-up study by an in-house office manager of non-invasive factors such as absenteeism and document error rate indicated that, one year later, the improvements in office performance measured in the study were still in effect. These data demonstrate the value of office ergonomics.

Other studies have demonstrated similar benefits:

Dr. T.J.Springer, president of Springer and Associates, demonstrated that the performance of State Farm Insurance clerical workers improved as much as 15 per cent with ergonomically acceptable work stations and seating.

Dr. Marvin Dainoff of the University of Miami reported from his laboratory work that the keystroke rate for data-entry tasks increased five per cent when workers were moved from an ergonomically unacceptable environment to one that was ergonomically correct.

The performance of office workers at Blue Cross-Blue Shield was shown to improve with the move to an ergonomically enhanced environment, resulting in an overall productivity improvement of 4.4 per cent.

The Norwegian State Institute studied the incidence of back discomfort amongst office workers. After improvements to work station layout and seating, back-related absenteeism was halved, turnover was reduced from 40 per cent to 5 per cent, and 40 per cent of employees on disability leave returned to work. The importance of these data is underscored when it is recognized that muscular soreness is the second-greatest cause of absenteeism, after the common cold.

Other Cases

The number of management workers in one department of a major automobile company using VDT equipment had grown over 400 per cent. Management workers used their computer equipment less than 12 per cent of the day. After the introduction of ergonomic computer tables and an improved chair, the VDT-use rate went up four times. Time taken to complete reports and memos was reduced, and the quality of correspondence was rated as being higher. More significantly, the average management worker had at least three more hours per week of time for work. Time that had initially been eaten up by the tedious clerical/management interface was freed by the use of "user-friendly" computer equipment. A telemarketing group reported an increase from ten per cent to 80 per cent on final closings of sales after the change to ergonomically enhanced office furnishings and improvementstothe acoustics and lighting of the environment.

Recently a high-tech manufacturer was anticipating an annual rate of sales growth of over 19 per cent. Performance over the previous three years had shown a real growth of more than 20 per cent per year. The company's concern was how to accommodate the 575 employees they then had in the firm, and an expected staff increase of 76 people over the next few years. A conventional approach would have been to perform a lease-purchase evaluation for larger office quarters. However, an alternative approach proved of greater value.

The productivity of the individuals in the firm was evaluated using cycle-time assessments, questionnaires, time diaries, and so on. Although highly motivated in general, the performance of the office workers left room for improvement. A model of cost avoidance for improved white-collar productivity was developed. On the basis of the work of the initial analysis, a nominal 5 per cent improvement in productivity was achievable using ergonomic enhancements and improved work-group layout.

People generally work only 60 per cent of the working day, or about 288 minutes. A 5 per cent improvement would provide 14 minutes of productive work per day, 14 fewer minutes of back discomfort and getting up to wander around the office, and 14 more minutes to review reports. There would be 14 fewer minutes of re-doing memos that have been processed incorrectly and 14 minutes for new work, 14 fewer minutes of frustration with screen glare and 14 more minutes of effective programming.

A projected 5 per cent improvement in productivity was used in the study to evaluate options of re-design and furniture purchase. The model is described in the following paragraphs.

The initial head count within the firm was 575. Employee. salary burden including benefits was approximately $25 million. Space costs were a very reasonable eight dollars per square foot. Relocating to larger premises would have meant losing this five-year price. A projected 5 per cent increase in productivity resulted in a net reduction in staff. Rather than growing to 651, head count could be reduced through attrition to 550 for two years, with an eventual growth to 600 over the following three years.

The salary burden would be reduced to $23.5 million. Better space utilization allowed the office space to remain at the same level even though eventually absorbing an increase in staff. To introduce this program would require an investment of $1,578,000, amortized over five years, or a cost of $315,000 per year. The annual pre-tax savings in salaries alone, even with the increased expenditure for the program costs and furnishings, would be over a million dollars.

Assuming an inflation rate of 5 per cent, an investment tax credit of 10 per cent, a corporate tax rate of 46 per cent, and an annual cost of invested capital of 12 per cent, the payback period for the furniture, the office environment improvements, and all fees was 1.7 years. The difference between ergonomic and non-ergonomic furnishings for a first time purchaser would be recovered in less than eight months.

The added cash flow from increased human productivity over 10 years would be in excess of $7 million, with a net income of $5 million. This is an after-tax return on investment of over 40 per cent. The client has been occupying the space for approximately nine months. Initial investigations reveal that the productivity improvement is not five per cent. It is in excess of 20 per cent.

The direct economic impact of improving human productivity in the office is awesome. The less tangible but important factors such as reduced turnover, improved morale, and improved quality of work life also contribute to fiscal performance. Ergonomic office furniture and environments are not a panacea. Ergonomics will not compensate for inadequate management, poor training, or a weak business plan. What ergonomics can do is provide the foundation for effective management and trained people to perform at their best level. The percentage of human costs to all other costs pushes the business community toward investing in ergonomic environments. Legislation demands it. For both management and labour, ergonomics is a win-win game. Good ergonomics is good business.

Office Ergonomics May/June 1985