Many companies that employ a manual labor workforce regularly contend with employees sustaining soft-tissue injuries to the back, shoulders, and neck. The impact on productivity and the bottom line can be painful, in more ways than one.
The good news is that these types of injuries can be largely prevented by the practice of workplace ergonomics. WebMD defines ergonomics as the “study of the kind of work you do, the environment you work in, and the tools you use to do your job.” Workplace ergonomics, then, aims to create a workspace that appropriately fits its workers to the types of jobs they are doing. The desired outcomes are enhanced safety and health leading to increased productivity and lower costs.
Workplace Ergonomics: Part of a Safety Strategy
It’s no wonder OSHA is actively promoting ergonomics as a leadership initiative among business owners and other stakeholders. A great place to start is to become acquainted with the risk factors for the types of injuries your workers are most likely to sustain. Human Factors and Ergonomic Specialist, IAC Industries, Joy M. Ebben, Ph.D, CPE shares the six different types of musculoskeletal risk factors in How to Bring Ergonomics to the Factory Floor:
- Forceful exertions and motions
- Extreme or repetitive exertions, postures and motions
- Duration of exertions, postures, motions, vibration and cold
- Insufficient rest or pauses
- Work factors (e.g. close performance monitoring, wage incentives, machine-paced work)
- Environmental factors
Companies that invest in workplace ergonomics and safety can identify red-flag risk factors that can lead to injury and develop best practices and protocols to reduce that risk to employees, resulting in a lower occurrence of injuries and reduced disruption in productivity. For facilities with manual materials handling, this initiative can begin during the hiring process. The physical parameters of each job can be documented (e.g. how much standing, sitting, bending, lifting and weights are involved in daily activities) and new hires can be required to complete a physical exam to evaluate their ability to do their job safely, with or without accommodations.
Setting Up A Safer Workspace
First things first: everyone should do their best to maintain a neutral posture. A healthy posture that’s sustained for long periods is key to an efficient and injury-free workflow. That means workers should focus on maintaining a straight neck, straight back with the curves naturally supported, shoulders straight down, elbows at a right angle and wrists straight. Train users to be aware of excessive neck bending and raised shoulders and what they can do to correct their posture. Ideas include repositioning tools and work stations, employing workstation aids, adjusting task lighting, and implementing regular stretch breaks with specialized stretches developed by a medical professional.
When it comes to work height, here are some guidelines from Techni-Tool:
- Fine work such as inspecting small parts should be done 6” above elbow height
- Precision work such as mechanical assembly should be done 4” above elbow height
- Writing or light assembly should be done at the same height as elbow
- Coarse or medium work such as packaging should be done 4” below elbow
Tables with adjustable heights and chairs with forward tilt capability can also be utilized to provide an ergonomically friendly work space. You can also minimize the height of fixtures or use a fixture to adjust the height of the work piece.
Additional Ergonomic Considerations for the Work Space
- Utilize a lift assistance device to lift and reposition heavy objects to limit force exertion
- Use diverging conveyors off a main line so that tasks are less repetitive
- Install diverters on conveyors to direct materials toward the worker to eliminate excessive leaning or reaching
- Place anti-fatigue mats in key areas for employees working in hard surface standing positions to minimize the impact on the lower back
- Establish a protocol that reduces the maximum weight of a load to limit force exertion
- Require that heavy loads are managed accordingly, ensuring:
- Loads are lifted by two people to limit force exertion
- Legs are used to lift rather than forward-bending of the back
- Twisting is avoided via proper placement of the feet prior to load transfer
- Loads are pushed, not pulled
- If manually handled heavy loads are stored on shelving, arrange the storage so that the heaviest loads are stored between knee and shoulder height to keep the worker from bending too low or reaching too high for the load while stocking the shelves or removing loads from the shelves
- Establish systems so workers are rotated between tasks to minimize the duration of continual exertion, repetitive motions, and awkward postures. Design a job rotation system in which employees rotate between jobs that use different muscle groups.
- Utilize staff “floaters” to provide periodic breaks between scheduled breaks
- Properly use and maintain pneumatic and power tools
Personal Protective Equipment: these pieces protect workers and reduce their exposure to ergonomics-related risk factors:
- Use padding to reduce direct contact with hard, sharp, or vibrating surfaces
- Wear good fitting thermal gloves to help with cold conditions while maintaining the ability to grasp items easily
There’s so much more to glean from the experts about workforce safety. Explore these topics for more tips and insights:
For additional information or resources, contact your local Acadia Insurance loss control representative or your independent insurance agent. Additional outside resources on workplace ergonomics can be found from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.