Ergonomics In The Workplace
As long as physically demanding jobs exist, there will be efforts to make them safer and less risky for both the employee and the employer. According to the National Safety Council, work-related injuries cost US companies nearly 164 billion dollars in 2020; that's almost half a billion dollars per day!
While the cost is increasing, work-related injuries have always been an unfortunate part of the landscape of physically demanding jobs. Until the robots completely take over, they will remain so. This fact, combined with data that shows our workforce is getting older and, therefore, more susceptible to musculoskeletal injuries, pushes us to identify new technologies to reduce, or better yet prevent, these incidents from occurring.
As injury prevention experts, we're constantly searching for ways to recognize the hazards of physically demanding jobs so we can attempt to decrease the risk of injury. We're all familiar with the hierarchy of controls when it comes to job safety:
- Elimination – Physically removing the hazard
- Substitution – Replacing the hazard
- Engineering Controls – Isolating workers from the hazard
- Administrative Controls – Changing the way people work
- PPE – Providing workers with proper Personal Protective Equipment
These are listed in order of most effective (removing the risk) to least effective (providing PPE).
Removing all hazardous activities from every job would be fantastic, but that's unrealistic. Some jobs are inherently risky; hopefully, employers will do their best to make them as safe as possible.
What happens when a job, or one of the tasks required to perform that job, can't be eliminated?
Preventing Injuries With Wearable Sensors & Ergonomics
Ergonomists have historically been called upon to observe job-related tasks, identify the risky behaviors involved with performing the task, and give suggestions on decreasing the risk. There are limitations, however. It is challenging to observe every aspect of every job; some hazardous tasks infrequently happen under normal circumstances, and some only occur in emergencies. An action that isn't observed can't be improved or removed.
What if there was a way to "observe" an employee and collect biomechanical data on movements and postures the whole time they were working? It would cost a fortune to have an ergonomist on site all day following each worker, and it would likely cause a massive disruption to production.
Thankfully, technology allows us to do just that without physically following an employee's every move.
Wearable sensors have been developed that track joint angles, postures, and repetitions of movements, not to mention heart rate, location in a facility, proximity to heavy equipment, temperature, light, humidity, decibels… Everything informs us about preventing injuries without needing a human following the worker and with much greater detail than an ergonomist could provide.
For example, an ergonomist can observe a worker performing a lifting task and approximate the angle of bend for the trunk, shoulders, and knees. They could count the number of repetitions that worker performs that specific task while observing and then extrapolate to come up with an approximate total for a whole day.
Put a wearable sensor on that same employee, and you'll collect exact angles for the involved joints and the precise number of repetitions of each task. In addition, you can identify trends like days of the week, or even times during each day, when employees are exerting themselves maximally, which makes industrial athletes more likely to get injured. Also, you can recognize specific periods when biomechanics begin to break down (do behaviors become riskier later in the week when fatigue may be more of a factor?).
You can use the data to identify workers with good body mechanics and use that information to inform other workers on proper techniques.
You can collect data specific to each individual to know precisely what coaching method will effectively reduce the risk for that employee.
Changing Behavior With Wearable Sensors
Another benefit of wearable sensors is that often you don't even need to wait for a "coaching" opportunity face-to-face. Many sensors can provide immediate haptic feedback (a light but noticeable vibration) to indicate when a risky posture or activity is taking place. This type of immediate feedback can be much more effective at changing behavior than traditional one-off coaching that occurs randomly after the behavior occurs.
Once behaviors have been addressed and changed, sensors allow employers to track those changes to see if they stick and revisit them when necessary.
Contact ErgoScience Today!
So, how do you implement this technology? At ErgoScience, we've partnered with some of the world's leading wearable sensor companies. Not only can we help you get the technology into your facility, but we also have the expertise in ergonomics and biomechanics to help you make sense of the data to bring your injuries down and give you the greatest possible return on investment.
Contact us today to find out how easily you can bring your ergonomics program into the 21st century!