Philippine Ergonomics Society: Looking back after 10 years

By: Professor Rosemary Seva

The Philippine Ergonomics Society (PHILERGO) started in 2001 through the efforts of a small group from academia and industry. The formation of the society started with meetings where representatives discussed the society’s role in the Philippines. Each meeting was sponsored by a company and discussion leaders were assigned to facilitate the exchange of ideas. Based on initial dialogues, the goals formulated included development of ergonomics standards for the Philippines, gathering baseline statistics on accidents and injuries and collecting anthropometric data. Representatives of the Department of Labour and Employment (DOLE) and Department of Health (DOH) were invited to help promote the activities of the Society. The formal inauguration took place in October 2003 with the theme “Uplifting quality of life through ergonomics”. The event was well attended by representatives from government, academia and industry.  After 8 years, PHILERGO became a federated society of the International Ergonomics Association (IEA) and it helped organize the First Southeast Asian Network of Ergonomics Societies (SEANES2010) in 2010, which was held in Cebu City, Philippines.

The first SEANES Conference was a success – attended by a little over a hundred delegates from South East Asia and further afield. The keynote speeches were given by notable personalities in ergonomics such as Andrew Imada, Martin Helander, Robert Bridger, Halimahtun Khalid, and Kazutaka Kogi. The parallel sessions were well attended and there was genuine interest in the papers presented. This was the biggest event organized by the Society and one that had the highest impact both nationally and internationally.

Several years ago, the word ergonomics was foreign to many workers in the Philippines. Understanding of ergonomics was usually limited to ergonomic type chairs found in offices. Only multinational companies such as Unilever, Intel, and Johnson and Johnson had ergonomics programs in place. Small and medium enterprises (SME’s) are not familiar with ergonomics principles or how it can help in improving safety and productivity in the workplace. Even local furniture manufacturers and designers fail to consider anthropometry to enhance their products. At present, however, the term has become more popular due to some efforts by academia and industry.

The Philippines government indirectly promoted ergonomics in SME’s about 15 years ago. The Department of Science and Technology, through its Manufacturing Productivity Extension project, indirectly introduced ergonomics to SME’s by employing Industrial Engineers as project consultants. Since ergonomics is part of the Industrial Engineering curriculum in local universities, some of the solutions provided by the consultants touched on ergonomics – such as providing appropriate workstations to make work efficient. It had been observed that employees in the SME’s had terrible working conditions that hampered production. The impact of the working conditions to productivity was explained to company owners during final presentations but only a few companies implemented ergonomic interventions, due to cost concerns. The owners did not want to invest in improvements that had not been proven to increase profit. Unless the effect of ergonomics can be translated to financial benefits, it is difficult to convince management, even after conducting a cost-benefit analysis at the end of the project.

The Occupational Health and Safety Centre (OHSC)  under the Department of Labour and Employment, on the other hand, also promotes ergonomics by holding the annual safety and health congress and conducting safety audits for companies. The audits involve assessments of illumination, noise, workstations and general safety. However, due to the limited resources of the Centre and the huge demand for its services, there is an imbalance between the demand for ergonomics and supply. The OHSC usually refers companies to PHILERGO for specialised advice on chair selection, ergonomic interventions especially those that demand confidentiality agreements.

Universities and colleges in the Philippines do not offer ergonomics as a degree program. It is part of some engineering curricula where students are expected to do design projects for their theses. Only a few universities have invested in ergonomics laboratories where real research can be done by faculty and students. At present, there is no inventory of ergonomics facilities in the Philippines. This was identified by PHILERGO as a project for next year. De La Salle University established the first Human Factors and Ergonomics Centre in the Philippines that offers research and consulting services to industry.

The existence of the PHILERGO in the Philippines has great potential benefits in the areas of safety and usability. As one of the industrially developing countries in Southeast Asia, the Philippines has a lot of manufacturing and service facilities where safety can be a concern. Everyday, newspapers report accidents that happen as a result of unsafe acts and working conditions. There is a need to change the unsafe practices that persist due to cultural influences. Collaborative research projects can be initiated by the organization that will address pressing safety issues in selected industries, such as call centres.

PHILERGO also takes an active role product design enhancements. Although there is not much research and development work done in the Philippines in terms of consumer products, there are many Filipino IT specialists that are involved in software development. Software designers and developers, however, are mostly concerned about program efficiency, but do not try to understand the cognitive limitations of the users. As such, designs do not work as intended and result in process failures. It is only recently that large telecommunications companies in the Philippines have started to employ usability experts to evaluate their products and incorporate usability principles at the conceptualization stage.

PHILERGO looks at the next ten years as an opportunity to learn from its experience and enhance its effort to educate workers to take charge of their own safety in the workplace. The group can also start its initial plan of forming a working committee that will formulate ergonomics standards in the Philippines.