Ergonomics: Fixing Hidden Workplace Hazards

by Bobby Pirtle, Safety Management Group

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Most people associate the concept of ergonomics with office workers. By placing keyboard trays and monitors at the right height and adjusting chairs correctly, those who work at desks can be more comfortable and reduce the chance of pain and fatigue. Many of the products sold in office supply stories carry claims about their ergonomic benefits.

But the basic concept is every bit as applicable to production lines, construction sites, vehicles, and anywhere else. After all, the science of ergonomics doesn’t only focus on office environments. The objective is to better understand interactions between people and their workplaces and activities, so that their well-being and productivity are enhanced. It involves designing the workplace, tasks, and equipment in a way that reduces strain on workers. And, by reducing that strain and the injuries that can result from it, ergonomics can lower the likelihood of lost time and long-term disability.

If you think ergonomics is a nice concept, but just isn’t practical for your workplace, consider this: According to the 2008 Workplace Safety Index, overexertion was by far the single-biggest cause of disabling workplace injuries, accounting for more than a quarter of all injuries that caused employees to miss six or more days of work. Yet many people responsible for jobsite safety don’t give it as much thought or attention as they should.

At its most basic level, ergonomics is all about finding ways to avoid overexertion by fitting the job to the person, rather than fitting the person to the job. It involves aspects such as putting things at the right height for the worker, at a comfortable distance, and in a setting that enhances comfort. Any manager who thinks that’s being “soft” on workers needs to recognize that the greater a worker’s comfort, the higher the productivity, the greater the morale, and the less likely that worker is to lose time due to an injury.

Ergonomic experts study tasks to determine their impact on workers. They examine the factors that influence risk, primarily the force involved, the worker’s posture, the frequency of the task, and its duration. Potential stressors may include items such as the temperature and the amount of vibration the worker experiences while performing a particular task.

Often, problems can be resolved with simple, inexpensive solutions. For example, working with a particular sandblaster was fatiguing for workers. Adding a simple footrest allowed them to switch their feet and change posture while working. Mounting vise-grip pliers inside the sandblaster eliminated the need to hold heavy objects, and a small turntable allowed the workers to move the object around and clean it more thoroughly in less time.

In other cases, the key is training and education. That may involve teaching workers how to lift correctly, or it might be underscoring the importance of using the right tool for the job. Workers also need to learn how to recognize the early signs of an ergonomic issue, such as swelling, numbness, tingling, or discomfort.

Many exertion injuries are related to repetitive activities. While you may be aware that typing for a long time can lead to conditions such as carpal tunnel syndrome, similar problems can also be caused from using a tool like a screwdriver again and again.

Of course, one challenge with ergonomic issues such as repetitive stress injuries is that just as they take a long time to develop, they take a very long time to heal. It’s much better to avoid the injury in the first place by modifying the nature of the work – or as they used to say, an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.

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