Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Ergonomics – It’s a lot more than office chairs!

October is National Ergonomics Month, so we thought some discussion on the topic would be worthwhile. What’s the first thing you think of when you hear “ergonomics”? If you’re like a lot of people you probably thought about something office related. Something like ergonomically designed chairs and keyboards. After all, the office is the number 1 place we find ergonomic hazards, right?

Unfortunately, that’s just not true. According to the latest injury data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2011 the industry sectors with the highest incident rates when it came to repetitive motion injuries were…manufacturing and construction. Wait a minute! With the increased reliance on computers shouldn’t there be an explosion of carpal tunnel injuries and other repetitive motion injuries? Apparently not. In fact, office settings are generally considered at low risk for ergonomic injuries, whereas other sectors, such as manufacturing and construction are high risk.

Now, this isn’t to say that we shouldn’t spend time and money reducing the risks to office workers. This is just to point out that ergonomics is much more than making sure office workers are safe. In fact, if we ignore ergonomic injuries, such as repetitive motion injuries and sprains and strains in other industries we may be ignoring one of the highest risk of injuries in these sectors.

So, what can we do to prevent ergonomic injuries? Well, ergonomics 101 teaches us that ergonomic injuries typically involve one or more of the legs of the ergonomics triangle – force, frequency, and posture.

The more force put on a particular body part (such as the edge of a work bench on the wrist, or the force exerted by the hand on the trigger of a power tool) the greater the risk.

The more frequent a task is performed (such as length of time standing, or someone picking up and moving parts off an assembly line all day) the greater the risk.

The more awkward the posture (such as having to twist to pick up boxes, or having to raise your arms up above your shoulder to paint a ceiling) the greater the risk.

The idea is that if we want to prevent ergonomics injuries in any industry sector we manipulate one or more of those legs of the triangle. And we do this using the hierarchy of controls that we talked about in an earlier blog. Here’s an example of a control for each control in the hierarchy:

Elimination – Design the work environment to utilize automation to avoid employees being exposed to high forces, high frequencies, and awkward postures.

Substitution – Reduce the forces, the frequencies, or the awkward postures. For example, consider vibration hazards in equipment and purchase equipment that has a low vibration risk.

Engineering controls – Use mechanical lifting devices, carts, and adjustable work stations to build ergonomic risk reduction into the environment.

Warnings – Ensure that heavy or awkward pieces of equipment or tools are marked either directly on the tools or in the area to alert employees of ergonomics risks.

Administrative controls – Use job rotation to reduce frequency of doing jobs with high ergonomic risks. Although, make sure you don’t rotate employees into a job with similar ergonomic risks, otherwise you’re not helping much at all.

PPE – Vibration absorbing gloves, or gloves for lifting to ensure proper grip. Note that back belts are not on the list, as there is no significant research we’re aware of to show that they are helpful and there is some research to suggest that they may be harmful.

Whatever you choose, just keep in mind the ergonomics is more than just looking in the cubicles in your organization. Remember, the root of the word “ergonomics” means “the study of work.” Look at all areas of your organization and find the high forces, high frequencies, and awkward postures that are increasing your risks. Then just act accordingly!

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