• Ergonomics and the Workplace

    According to the most recent numbers compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), musculoskeletal disorders account for 34 percent of all back paininjury and illness cases in the workplace. Ergonomics-related conditions are a leading cause of lost workdays among all employees.

    Ergonomics Defined

    Ergonomics is the study of employees and their work environment. When there is a poor fit between employees and their work environment, the result can be a high number of injuries — referred to as musculoskeletal disorders. Conversely, a good fit between employees and their work environment can substantially reduce the number of injuries and illnesses that a company experiences, including the costs associated with them.

    What Are Musculoskeletal Disorders?

    Musculoskeletal disorders encompass a variety of conditions that primarily affect:

    • Nerves

    • Tendons

    • Muscles

    Such disorders occur when overuse or trauma results in nerves, tendons and/or muscles that become inflamed, stretched, torn or otherwise damaged. The areas most affected include the hands, shoulders, neck, back and lower limbs, and the symptoms most often reported by employees are pain, tingling and numbness.

    Many factors contribute to musculoskeletal disorders. This helps to explain why ergonomics-related conditions affect so many workers in industries as diverse as warehousing and health care.  Consider the data-entry operator who types eight hours a day, the materials handling worker who lifts heavy objects 40 hours a week, or the machinist who performs repetitive tasks day in and day out … all are at risk of injury.

    Long Term vs. Acute

    A key characteristic of ergonomics-related conditions is their tendency to arise over relatively long periods of time. The factors that influence the onset of musculoskeletal disorders include:

    • Repetition — using the same or similar movements repeatedly

    • Force — physical effort required to complete a task or maintain control of a tool or piece of equipment

    • Awkward posture — any posture other than the normal “neutral” body position

    • Static posture — maintaining the same position for a prolonged period of time

    • Contact stress — a sharp or hard object applying pressure to a specific part of the body

    • Vibration — machine vibration, which travels through the hands and feet while operating certain types of machinery, tools or equipment

    Awareness and Action

    The Occupational Safety and Health Administration encourages employers to protect employees by thinking about:

    1. Engineering Controls: Physical changes to the workplace that could eliminate hazards. For example:

    • Repositioning a worktable to eliminate the need for excessive reaching

    • Redesigning tools to avoid awkward postures

    2. Work Practice Controls: Processes or procedures that could be streamlined to improve efficiency and reduce hazards. For example:

    • Requiring team lifts for all heavy loads

    • Designing a job rotation system that requires employees to change tasks, thus reducing repetitive motions and lessening strain on specific muscle groups

    3. Protective Equipment: Physical protection that employees can wear to reduce exposure to hazards. For example:

    • The use of thermal gloves to protect employees’ hands from extreme temperatures

    • Knee or elbow pads to reduce employees’ direct contact with hard or sharp surfaces

    Employee Education

    Employee education is key because ergonomic safety often hinges on how employees perform their work and whether they are doing so in a way that minimizes the stress placed on their bodies. Compliance regarding proper procedures is paramount. Toward that end, it is important that employees understand:

    • Why musculoskeletal disorders develop and how such disorders can be prevented

    • The importance of reporting symptoms of potential injury to managers or supervisors

    Signs of potential injury may include:

    • Pain or aching sensation

    • Tingling or numbness

    • Visible swelling or redness

    • Loss of flexibility and strength

    • General fatigue

    General Guidance

    Employees will benefit from following these tips:

    • Stretch before every shift

    • Take frequent, short breaks

    • Shift body positions regularly

    • Set up your workstation in an ergonomically friendly manner:

    √ Items are within easy reach

    √ Seats and worktables are at the correct height

    √ Lighting is good

    • Avoid awkward positions, such as a twisted torso, when performing your work

    • Remember that cold environ­ments can add additional stress to the joints, muscles and soft tissues, so proper PPE is essential, as are short, frequent breaks

    A Final Word

    It may be impossible to eliminate all ergonomics-related risk fac­tors in the workplace. However, by putting the proper procedures, tools and processes in place — and educating workers — you will have taken great strides toward creating a good fit between your employees and their work environment.

    Get the 2014 Workplace Safety Sports Calendar today! February features Ergonomic ideas for the workplace. Order now!

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