Whether we spend our day sitting in an office chair or working on a production floor, we are all affected by ergonomic factors. Poor management of ergonomic risk factors may lead to Work-Related Musculoskeletal Disorders (WMSDs) such as repetitive stress injuries, lower back injuries, vibration syndromes, subluxation, and neck and shoulder injuries. In order to protect ourselves and our employees, we need to understand what ergonomic risks we are exposed to, and more importantly, how to control these risks to prevent injuries. WMSDs result from the exposure to ergonomic risk factors, which include but are not limited to:
- Highly repetitive work/activities (repetition)
- Exertion of extreme forces or vibration (force)
- Performing stressful activities for a long period of time (duration)
- Assuming postures that are unnatural for the body (awkward postures)
- Working in adverse environmental conditions such as high or low temperatures, antagonistic lighting conditions (glare/reflection, etc.), loud noises, etc. (environment)
Let’s briefly review each of these ergonomic risk factors to aid in understanding what risks you or your employees may be exposed to.
Highly repetitive work activities stress ligaments and joints that can lead to sprains and strains. Examples of repetitive motion injuries may include:
- Tendinitis – Inflammation of the muscle tendons
- Tenosynovitis – Inflammation of the tendon and sheath covering the muscle
- Carpal Tunnel Syndrome – Compression of the median nerve in the wrist
Highly repetitive work is often complicated by adding stressors from awkward positions, long durations, and forceful exertions.
Using the body to exert high or extreme forces are often encountered with material handling, grasping, and lifting tasks. High forces are considered hazardous when the capabilities of the involved body parts are not able to easily adapt to the forces exerted (which are often exaggerated by repetitive motion and awkward positions). For example, overexerting oneself while lifting a heavy object is common. Other hazardous exertions may include high speed or jerky movements, such as swinging or throwing objects, pushing or pulling materials, or compressive loads from holding or carrying heavy objects.
Long activity duration may create tension and/or compression of tissues, compromising their integrity and ability to adapt to the stressors placed upon them. Examples may include but are not limited to:
- Standing in the same location
- Static postures or not moving for long periods of time
- Looking down for extended periods
- Minimal or non-rotation of positions
- Extended computer or desk work
Assuming postures that are outside of normal, often symmetric positions for the body inefficiently transfers forces throughout the body, compromising both hard and soft tissues in the body. This hazard complicates or worsens all of the other Ergonomic Hazards. Examples of awkward posture hazards may include:
- Slouching in a chair or while standing
- Looking down at a handheld device
- Forward translation of the head while working at a computer
- Flexion of the wrist to reach into a jar
- Bending at the waist to pick up a container
- Lifting or moving an object that is either above the shoulders or below the waist
Workplace environmental conditions may amplify or complicate other ergonomic hazards. Examples of environmental workplace conditions may include:
- High Heat
- Freezer/Cooler Work
- Loud Noise
- Low lighting
- Glare or Reflection
- Shift Work
Prevention of Work-Related Musculoskeletal Disorders
Workplace tasks are unique and often require a customized assessment to identify the hazards in a workstation and understand the risks related to those hazards. The goal of any ergonomic control is to decrease the hazards that workers encounter in their tasks and to build-in adaptability to the work station. Making work stations suitable for a variety of workers with different body sizes and types allows workers to work effectively and efficiently, ultimately fitting the workplace to the worker.
Facility Assessments are the first step of an Ergonomics Program, targeted at objectively assessing all key positions in the facility. This aids in increasing knowledge and targeting where controls are needed most. Advance assessments will incorporate a Risk Assessment, which objectively scores the positions in regards to risk and severity to aid with ranking and prioritizing, determining expected risk reduction for various controls, and for comparison after controls are implemented.
Engineering Controls, including the use of adjustable workstations (height adjustability, tilting of work tables, etc.), the provision of material handling equipment to minimize lifting hazards, the use of ergonomically designed hand and power tools, and the automation of processes to aid in reducing or eliminating risk factors (noting that this may be cost prohibitive but also leads to efficiency and decreased worker counts).
Administrative Controls may include promoting correct body positioning and posture through training and observation/monitoring, implementing stretching programs, encouraging early reporting of signs and symptoms to proactively address issues before they become a significant injury, and providing onsite care of pre-injury conditions by qualified practitioners. Task rotation is often an underutilized administrative control that must be managed to increase variation in tasks and reduce the long duration and repetitive use of the same muscles, tendons, and ligaments.
Training is the key to ensuring employees know and understand the risk factors they are exposed to in their work area. Understanding that not all hazards can be eliminated, employees that understand key ergonomic risk factors will subconsciously protect themselves and consciously seek to find improved solutions to eliminate or reduce the exposures. Training also assists in the identification of early signs and symptoms, assisting in early intervention and preventing the injury from manifesting into a severe injury.
Benefits of Proper Ergonomics
Injury risk reduction is an obvious benefit of improved ergonomics along with various direct and indirect company fiscal benefits that occur when fewer employees are injured in the workplace. In addition to the regulatory and moral obligation of taking care of employees, when proper ergonomic controls are in place, increased work efficiency (faster production), improved quality (better products with fewer errors), improved employee morale, general wellness, reduced psychological stress, and higher employee retention are natural byproducts.
Following these recommendations may minimize and prevent WMSDs in your workplace. For more information on ergonomics in the workplace, visit OSHA’s website at https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/ergonomics/, or contact US Compliance. US Compliance provides safety, health, and environmental services to hundreds of facilities in the manufacturing and general industry sector across the United States and North America and can assist you in developing and customizing an effective Ergonomics Program.