Ergonomic Solutions: The Dow Chemical Company's Innovative Use of "Six Sigma"

The Solution

The Dow Chemical Company’s Innovative Use of "Six Sigma":(3)
Avoiding ergonomics-related injuries is an important component of The Dow Chemical Company’s ("Dow" or "the Company") overall emphasis on safety and health. Dow is a science and technology company that develops, manufactures and provides various chemical, plastic and agricultural products and services for customers in over 180 countries. In 1994, Dow adopted a set of voluntary 10-year EH&S goals to dramatically improve the Company’s performance by 2005. These goals call for a reduction in the Company’s reportable injury and illness rate by 90 percent to 0.24.

In 2000, the company identified an opportunity to improve its injury rate within the Dow Design and Construction business unit. Dow Design and Construction ("DDC") is responsible for managing the design and construction of Dow’s facilities worldwide. Because DDC’s approximately 1,250 workers (including employees and contractors) work primarily at desktop workstations, where they spend the majority of their time working at computer keyboards, they were increasingly susceptible to ergonomics injuries. While the rate of ergonomics-related injuries among the DDC workers was low (only three were reported in 1999), the Company chose to make proactive improvements before ergonomic injuries increased in number or severity.

Dow’s EH&S function decided to address ergonomic injuries at DDC using the "Six Sigma" problem solving methodology. Six Sigma is a disciplined, process-oriented approach to problem solving, adopted by Dow and many other companies, which emphasizes the reduction of defects in processes, products and services by applying a four-step improvement methodology. Because Six Sigma emphasizes sustainable results over short-term fixes, Dow has found it particularly useful for EH&S projects. Following the steps prescribed under Six Sigma, Dow developed a Six Sigma project team, which first defined the primary contributing factors to MSDs in the DDC function, and then sought to reduce the those factors by 70 percent. While each of the four steps of the Six Sigma project are outlined below, a more detailed discussion of the Six Sigma methodology appears at the end of this case study.

Step 1: Measure
Once the Six Sigma project team developed its charter and defined its task, it then began by defining the current process. First, the team outlined the sequence of events from workstation assignment to task performance and potential injury. They next identified a series of key variables affecting the process outcome that included:

•user attributes (such as daily time at workstations);
•user behaviors (including posture, force, and duration of use); and
•environmental factors.

In this phase of the Six Sigma method, the "defect" – a measurable outcome of the process for which improvement is desired – is defined. While the true "defect" for this process would be the occurrence of an ergonomic injury, there were so few at the start of the project that measuring a statistically significant improvement was going to be difficult. Therefore, the key process variables identified were taken as the "defect," and a goal of 70% improvement (reduction) in the baseline level was set for the project. Scored surveys of DDC workstation users were developed and conducted on the variables identified and used to measure the baseline defect level.


3. This case study was developed from information provided by Karen Kearns, Industrial Hygiene Specialist, and Mark Spence, Manager, North American Health and Safety Regulatory Affairs, The Dow Chemical Company.

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

Updated on: 12/10/09
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