Preventing Ergonomic Problems

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Digital Library > Operations and Technology > Safety"Preventing Ergonomic Problems"

Good ergonomics makes for happier, healthier, more productive people and that translates into improved profits for your company.

OVERVIEW [top]

Preventing work-related injuries makes good sense for any business. Ergonomics is defined here as the study of work activities that cause musculoskeletal disorders, which is the fastest-growing category of work-related illnesses. Currently, injuries in this category account for $15 to $20 billion of the workers' compensation claims made each year.

The problem is by no means limited to big companies. According to Charles Jeffress of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), fewer than 30% of small businesses — those with twenty or fewer employees — have addressed ergonomic issues in their companies. This is especially troubling in that Jeffress further reports that more than 325,000 musculoskeletal disorders occur in small firms each year ("Ergonomics Rule: OSHA's Interference with State Workers Compensation." U.S. Senate Hearing 106-529, April 27, 2000. Statement of Charles N. Jeffress, Assistant Secretary For Occupational Safety And Health, U.S. Department of Labor).

Work-related injuries drain not only money but also morale and talent from your organization. By implementing some preventative measures, you'll lose far less to workers' compensation, medical costs and lost wage benefits. You'll also find that such measures significantly increase employee satisfaction and productivity.

In this Quick-Read you will find:

  • Basic facts about ergonomic problems in the workplace.
  • Examples of low-cost ergonomic preventive measures and solutions.
  • Sources for prevention program assistance.

SOLUTION [top]

Work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), such as back injuries and carpal tunnel syndrome, are the most prevalent, most expensive and most preventable medical problems in the country. Over 400,000 employees lost workdays in 2004 because of MSDs, and still more had their work activities restricted ("Lost Worktime Illnesses and Injuries," U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics News Release, December 13, 2005). Typically, MSDs are caused by force, repetition, backward postures, vibration and cold temperatures. One of the most familiar causes of MSD is the use of a keyboard and mouse, an activity that can result in repetitive stress injuries to hands, arms, back and neck.

Fortunately, MSDs are often very easy to prevent. Remember, your objective is to eliminate a mismatch between the physical requirements of the job and the physical capacity of the worker. Here are some steps to begin addressing ergonomics in your workplace:

  • Examine injury and illness records to determine which jobs have a history of ergonomic problems.

  • Talk with workers to identify specific tasks that contribute to pain and lost workdays.

  • Use employee comments and recommendations to help formulate solutions to the ergonomic problems you discover.

  • Encourage workers to report MSD symptoms and establish a medical management system to detect problems early.

  • Establish policies encouraging use of equipment — not backs — for heavy or repetitive lifting.

  • Implement programs to educate employees and managers about ergonomic techniques designed to prevent and correct MSDs.

  • Develop an evaluation program to ensure that improvements are constantly made.

Simple solutions often work best. Changes to your workplace need not cost a fortune. Ergonomic interventions suggested by OSHA include:

  • Adjust the height of working surfaces to reduce long reaches and awkward postures.

  • Put work supplies and equipment within comfortable reach.

  • Provide the right tool handle for the worker.

  • Vary tasks for workers (e.g., employ job rotation).

  • Encourage short rest breaks.

  • Reduce the weight and size of items workers must lift.

  • Provide mechanical lifting equipment.

  • Replace telephone handsets with headsets anywhere they are used frequently.

  • Provide ergonomic chairs and stools.

  • Supply anti-fatigue floor mats.

  • Reduce or eliminate vibrations and sharp edges.

Get a free consultation from the experts

OSHA provides free safety consultations. The service, described at http://www.osha.gov/dcsp/smallbusiness/consult.html, can help you identify potential hazards at your work site(s), improve occupational safety and health management systems, and even qualify for a one-year exemption from routine OSHA inspections. The service is confidential and no citations are issued or penalties imposed.

The on-site consultant will:

  • Suggest general approaches or options for solving a safety or health problem.

  • Assist your company in developing or maintaining an effective safety and health program.

  • Provide you with a written report summarizing findings.

  • Provide free training and education.

The OSHA Web site (http://www.osha.gov) offers many resources designed specifically for smaller employers, including free on-site consultation, interactive computer software, technical information and easy-to-follow guides for specific OSHA standards. It also includes links to local OSHA offices and the Small Business Administration. Dates and locations for the small business forum meetings hosted by OSHA around the country are posted on the site as well. These outreach meetings are designed to inform the small business community about the type of assistance available.

REAL-LIFE EXAMPLE [top]

Arm them with knowledge

Problem: Employees in many different offices experience pain from their daily tasks.
Solution: You can easily address a number of general "ergonomic complaints" by making better use of the equipment you already have. Show workers how to operate the adjustments already provided in their chairs, computer monitors and computer systems. Changes in the placement of telephones, printers and in-boxes can lead to better working posture. In addition, encouraging employees to take micro-breaks helps overused body parts rest and recuperate.
Cost: Variable, depending on availability of training and maintenance personnel.

A novel solution

Problem: A book warehouse sorter receives a bin of books on a gravity conveyor, carries it to the sorting station to scan each book's bar code and then places the books in the correct order bin. On completing the batch, the sorter slides the bins onto the evacuation conveyor. Because each filled bin weighs between 30 and 50 pounds, the sorter complained of back pain and fatigue.
Solution: The company eliminated the need for lifting by connecting the three sections of the conveyor and installing manual stops between sections to avoid backup.
Cost: $80, including labor.

Lowering the bar

Problem: Laboratory workers hanging solution bags on a 75-inch rack experienced shoulder discomfort. To reach the rack and change the bags, some workers had to stand on their toes.
Solution: Cutting 6 inches from the bottom and re-welding the rack.
Cost: Less than $40 per rack.

DO IT [top]

  1. Take advantage of a free OSHA consultation. Lundberg and Tylczak, authors of Slash Your Workers' Comp Costs, recommend first finding someone who has had such a consultation and discussing the results. Local OSHA offices vary in their aggressiveness, and there is risk of significant cost if a lot of changes must be made quickly. If you are uncomfortable turning to OSHA, consider hiring a specialist consultant to criticize ergonomic and safety features of your workflow design and procedures.

  2. Talk to your work team. You, your managers and your employees should work together to prevent ergonomic problems. Solicit feedback from staff to determine if there are any problems. Managers should make it clear that employee health and safety is a high priority.

  3. Act on your analysis data as well as the feedback that you receive from your OSHA consultation. Workstations might need to be rearranged, new equipment and furniture introduced, tasks redefined and work procedures adjusted. Remember: intervention does not always require new equipment. Often improvements can be made by simply rearranging existing furnishings and equipment to create a more ergonomically sound layout.

  4. Make a manager who cares responsible for establishing a process for reporting and dealing with ergonomic issues. Set up a system for proper diagnosis and treatment of ergonomic problems. Develop a proper procedure for returning the recovering employees to work.

  5. Give your staff ergonomic training. After all workstations have been evaluated and necessary changes implemented, instruct your employees on proper ergonomic practices. Make the training ongoing to encompass both workers who change responsibilities and employees who are new to your company.

  6. Measure and evaluate your office regularly. Actively listen to your employees when they express concerns about work-related discomfort, injury rate, productivity and quality. Evaluate your efforts and refine procedures as problems or developments occur.

RESOURCES [top]

Books

Fitting the Task to the Human: A Textbook of Occupational Ergonomics, fifth edition, by K.H.E. Kroemer and E. Grandjean (Taylor and Francis, 1997). This most-popular textbook provides more guidance for workplace designers than for executives.

Human Factors Design Handbook: Information and Guidelines for the Design of Systems, Facilities, Equipment, and Products for Human Use, second edition, by Wesley E. Woodson, Barry Tillman and Peggy Tillman. (McGraw-Hill, 1991). A standard reference source for equipment and workstation design.

Slash Your Workers' Comp Costs: How to Cut Premiums Up to 35% — And Maintain a Productive and Safe Workplace by Thomas Lundberg and Lynn Tylczak (AMACOM, 1997). This book, emphasizing hazards more than ergonomic design, is more for the manager than the worker, and more for the plant than the office.


Internet Sites

Ergonomics. National Safety Council.

Safety and Health Topics: Ergonomics.. U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

OSHA Bulletin

ErgoWeb

Ergonomics. HR POlicy Association.


Article Contributors

Writer: Kimberly Stans

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