Use of the "Six Sigma" Methodology for MSD Reduction

  Office | Computer workstations | Large Business | Six Sigma  

1. Organizations Involved

  • The Dow Chemical Company

  • US Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration

2. Description of the Case

2.1 Introduction/Background

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. Dow's EH&S function decided to address ergonomic injuries at Dow Design and Construction ("DDC") using the "Six Sigma" problem solving methodology. 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.

"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. Steps in the “Six Sigma” process include: MAIC (Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control).

2.2 Goal

Identify primary contributing factors to MSD and reduce those factors by 70 percent

2.3 What was done and how?

Dow developed a "Six Sigma" project team.

  1. Measure. 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)
    • Environmental factors
  2. Analyse. Accurately identifying the root causes of a problem, which in turn leads to more effective improvements, is an essential function of the "Six Sigma" methodology. [Other] key root causes validated through this process were the lack of adjustable furniture at some worksites and a lack of "ownership" in personal safety on the part of the employee. The team also determined that ergonomics was not emphasized by DDC to the same extent as other, more immediate, safety issues such as the use of personal protective equipment in hazardous environments.
  3. Improve. After determining the most significant root causes through analysis and validation, the project team developed a series of improvements to correct the identified root causes, including both work-related and personal risk factors.
  4. After the immediate improvements were implemented, the project team developed a long-term control plan designed to sustain the achievements. The control plan took the sequence of events which might contribute to an injury, as outlined in the Measure step, and added a series of performance standards, measures, responsibilities, and contingency plans.

2.4 Result of the changes?

DDC made immediate improvements in the identified risk factors, which have been reduced 64% since the baseline measurement and by more than 45% overall. These improvements have been well received by the DDC's management and workers, and employees are proactive in addressing discomfort and have a better understanding of the personal benefits of ergonomics. As improvements like these have been repeated throughout the Company, the severity of ergonomics injuries has declined.

3. Success Factors/Challenges

The “Six Sigma" methodology is particularly useful in identifying and validating root causes that are hard to discern because of their subjectivity, and in focusing improvements to an ergonomics program in ways that caused measurable improvements. Organization has in-house resources.

4. Transferability

The methodology can be applied to any process that allows the measurement of benefits and improvements in defect reduction, whether in the manufacture of a product, the delivery of a service, the control of costs, or the management of injuries and illnesses. Some of the projects to which Dow has applied the "Six Sigma" methodology include:

  • Reduction of repetitive stress injuries
  • Reduction of motor vehicle accidents
  • Improved safety for visitors (especially contractors)
  • Site logistics risk reduction
  • Off-the-job safety process improvement

5. Further Information


6. References or resources

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DISCLAIMER: CRE-MSD receives funding through a grant provided by the Ontario Ministry of Labour. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Province.

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