Workplace ergonomics is a topic that employers are continuing to hear a lot about, not least because maintaining an ergonomic workplace drastically reduces the risk of employees developing musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). This particular type of injury has become the most common in the occupational setting and, according to OSHA, accounts for 600,000 injuries every year. MSDs are also the root cause of 34 percent of all lost workdays, and one in every three dollars spent on workers' compensation.
MSDs generally develop over an extended period of time and negatively affect muscles, nerves, and tendons. These injuries are typically caused by factors such as repetitive motions, awkward body postures or movements, forceful exertion, and vibration. They can be extremely painful and typically take longer to heal than other types of injuries. In some cases, MSDs lead to permanent disability. Given these consequences of MSDs to workers – and by extension, employers – preventing workplace injuries of this type must be high on the priority list of any effective workplace health and safety plan.
Identifying Employee Pains
If prevention is 9/10 of the cure, identifying existing employee pains is the ideal place to start. Establish a policy that stresses the the importance of watching for early signs of MSDs. It is essential that employees are allowed – and actively encouraged – to report these risk indicators to supervisors promptly. Catching these conditions in the early stages not only provides the opportunity to correct ergonomic issues contributing to their development, but also allows for early medical intervention. Early treatment generally means a better prognosis for the injured worker, since MSDs tend to worsen over time. The later treatment begins, the more difficult, time-consuming, and costly treatment becomes. The longer treatment is delayed, the greater the risk of permanent disability.
Symptoms that workers should be instructed to watch for – especially in the arms, neck, shoulder, hands, wrists, fingers, or back – include:
- Pain and/or achiness
- Numbness and/or tingling
- Declining dexterity/coordination
Identifying and Addressing Ergonomic Issues at the Root of Employee Pains
If you are seeing a high volume of aches and pains reports from employees or have logged large numbers of musculoskeletal injuries, a careful examination of workplace ergonomics is most certainly in order. Begin by reviewing these employee reports in order to identify which jobs are statistically posing the greatest risk to your workers' safety. Then examine how work is being done in these jobs, watching for risk factors such as:
- Repetitive activities
- Staying in the same position – whether sitting or standing – for extended periods
- Awkward body postures such as reaching above the shoulders or behind the back, frequently bending from the waist, lifting from below the knees, or frequent twisting at the waist or wrists
- Forceful exertions, especially with the hands
- Excessive vibration from machinery or power tools
- Hand tools that do not provide a comfortable grip or are ill-suited to the job
While simple observations may help identify some existing ergonomic issues, some additional expertise is typically needed to design a solid ergonomics program. Steps that a good consultant will take in designing a solid program include a thorough ergonomic evaluation of your workplace. This approach is a more effective and more efficient means of preventing workplace injuries than internal audits are.
Professional workplace ergonomic evaluations should include reactive assessments, which identify issues in jobs or areas where injuries have occurred. The information gathered from these assessments will form the foundation for recommendations for improving workplace ergonomics, which often involve:
- Modifications to the work environment
- Employee training
- Educating employees on body mechanics, positioning, and other behaviors that can aid in preventing workplace injuries
Evaluations should also incorporate proactive assessments, which pinpoint problems with the way work is done before they cause injuries.