OSHA Ergonomics Case Study: The Dow Chemical Company's Use of the "Six Sigma" Methodology

The Problem

Reducing Musculoskeletal Disorders:
Ergonomics-related injuries, including musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) caused by repetitive strains, continue to be a serious problem for employers. In 2002, ergonomics-related injuries accounted for a third of all workplace injuries involving missed work time, with an average absence of nine days per injury.1 The resulting worker injury claims and loss of productivity are estimated to cost $13 to $20 million per year for U.S. employers.2 As computer workstation users spend more and more time at desktops, the risk of MSDs occurring has increased. Yet, as illustrated below, in many companies there are inherent difficulties and concerns associated with addressing this increased ergonomics risk.

For example, Tricia, the Environmental, Health and Safety (EH&S) Leader for the Specialty Chemicals Business of The Dow Chemical Company, wants to reduce MSDs among computer workstation users throughout her business’ various divisions and operations. Before she can understand what changes to make in either the workstations or the work practices in those divisions, she must identify the root causes of MSDs among the operators. Although she has some theories, Tricia does not know for sure what factors are causing or contributing to the employees’ MSD complaints. Only by knowing the root causes can she implement with confidence controls that would achieve positive results.

Tricia also suspects, but is not sure, that many of the root causes of MSDs are the same across the different operations and divisions in her business. Because of constraints on both her budget and time, Tricia would like to design one basic program that is flexible enough to implement company-wide. She also knows that any reductions achieved under the new program must be sustained over the long term, and she is concerned that over time employees and managers will "backslide" on their commitment to the program and return to their ergonomically risky behaviors.

Fortunately for Tricia, she could refer to a similar project successfully undertaken by the Design and Construction function of The Dow Chemical Company, which is discussed in the case study below. This project, which utilized a problem-solving methodology called "Six Sigma," offered an innovative way to address Tricia’s concerns for the development and implementation of a sustainable program to reduce MSDs throughout her business.

References:

1. March 2004. U.S. Department of Labor News Release regarding Bureau of Labor Statistics Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses.

2. "A Critical Review of Epidemiologic Evidence for Work-Related Musculoskeletal Disorders of the Neck, Upper Extremity, and Low Back," The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

This product was funded under GS 35F 5544H for the U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the official position or policy of the U.S. Department of Labor.

May 15, 2004

Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA)
200 Constitution Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20210
www.osha.gov
www.dol.gov

Updated on: 12/10/09
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Ergonomic Solutions: The Dow Chemical Company's Innovative Use of "Six Sigma"
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Ergonomic Solutions: The Dow Chemical Company's Innovative Use of "Six Sigma"

Avoiding ergonomics-related injuries is an important component on The Dow Chemical Company's overall emphasis on safety and health.
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