What is a RULA Assessment? – An Ergonomist’s Answer

The validity of the tool as been proven in use around the world but it has some limitations: it should not be used to score more dynamic tasks where the leg and hip postures require assessing too. The author of the tool, Dr. Lynn McAtamney, produced a different tool for this purpose – Rapid Entire Body Assessment (REBA). It also does not include a significant factor of exposure over time or relation to other tasks.

Due to the current sedentary nature of office work, RULA is an ideal tool for use in this environment and the development of online versions of the tool significantly increase the speed and application of the tool. Assessors are no longer required to refer to numerous sets of tables to arrive at a score. This increases accuracy and the number completed in reasonable timescales, so further reducing the costs to companies undertaking this step in their risk management programmes. With a collection of RULA scores attributed to tasks, workstations, equipment and individuals a company can make a targeted reduction in the risks, due to the clear identification of the postures or actions to be avoided, adapted or reduced.

However, in order to reach this outcome, assessors must overcome one of the difficult aspects of using RULA, i.e, the judgement required of assessors in terms of which postures to assess. Some will take the most significant or high scoring posture and may therefore use RULA simply to prove a point while attempting to bring about changes that they think are required. The reverse, of course, may also be true and, with a dash more cynicism, it may be used to ‘support’ the efficacy of changes suggested or deployed. So how can we be sure about what a RULA score, or a collection of scores is showing us? The answer of course is that it will depend on the assessor and to a greater or lesser extent, to the reporting vehicle used to present and explain those scores. A phrase springs to mind about a certain quality of workman and their reliance on their tools to support a blame culture!

As an Ergonomics Consultant for over 12 years, I have experience enough of the vagaries of workplaces, and individual reactions to them, to know that hard and fast assertions of certainty are almost always going to come unstuck. When applying a score to a situation it is very easy to suggest, and in fact often assumed to be, a solid measure, shored up on the undeniable truths of mathematics.

This can cause difficulties for those undertaking the assessment and those receiving the summary of results. The ‘scientific’ delivery is somewhat softened by the Action Levels published with the tool. These take those precise scores and translate them into the management-comforting terms ‘acceptable’, ‘may be’ and ‘soon’ as well as the slightly more alarming ‘immediately’! This brings the impact of the tool to a more

realistic level of what it can achieve on its own and ensures that there must be a level of interpretation and application within a company’s risk management system. The top three Action Levels also mention further investigation as part of the outcomes of the assessment. This has been known to throw those paying for the assessments into some confusion – after all what have the assessors been doing if not investigating? What has the tool produced except confirmation that something needs to be done? Can any management team be accused of being unaware of the need if they have already invested time and money into getting a RULA assessment done?

The reply to this problem, paradoxically, needs to have come before the question is asked. It must be made clear to individuals, assessors and management alike that RULA is ‘Rapid’; RULA is only looking at the ‘Upper Limbs’; RULA is a ‘tool’ and that the outcomes are a filter to prioritise changes based on postural loading. The clue is in the name and it should be clarified if it is to be advertised as a part of an assessment.

There are many applications of Ergonomics in the workplace and Ergonomists are constantly misunderstood when describing the scope of their profession or expertise. It is so important that, when undertaking an Ergonomic assessment, we do not confuse our clients or customers with one of the tools we will be using. Rather, we should be assuring them that our qualifications and experience mean we can undertake well rounded and detailed investigations, using a collection of appropriate tools, to provide solutions to most problems in the workplace and methodologies for tackling the remaining issues over the longer term.

In summary, a RULA assessment is a very useful tool for an Ergonomist to have but hardly the whole contents of our tool-box.