For most employers, ergonomics is a concept that is often misunderstood, unknown, or even ignored. Ergonomic hazards are not the most obvious, yet often the injuries that result from them are costly and have long term impact on the injured employee. Ergonomics is considered a science and studies the capabilities of the human body in order to design a job to to better accommodate the worker instead of expecting a worker to change his body's natural movements to fit the job.
Lack of Federal Regulation Does Not Mean Lack of Responsibility for Employers
Currently, there is no federal regulation that requires employers to have an ergonomic program or controls what an ergonomics program should consist of, such as a written program, onsite evaluation, and training. However, for employers who fall within the federal OSHA jurisdiction, a compliance safety health officer (CSHO) could issue a citation under the General Duty Clause of OSHA for failure to recognize and correct the hazard. Employers within state approved OSHA plans, such as California, may also have state-specific regulations to deal with for ergonomics.
Regardless of the regulatory compliance side of not managing ergonomics in the workplace, the workers’ compensation cost and open claims could be significant for an employer. Many ergonomic related injuries such as tendinitis, tenosynovitis, carpel tunnel syndrome, and trigger finger may take a great deal of time to heal, or may become lifelong conditions.
8 Key Areas of Ergonomics To Consider
- Easy Access to Tools - Keep everything within an easy reach of employees. Maximum reach distance should be kept within normal reaching distance between 14-18 inches. Workers shouldn't need to repeatedly move from their work area or stretch in order to reach frequently used tools. Reduce motions above the shoulder and behind the worker to reduce twisting and strain injuries, strains being on of the largest types of Workers' Compensation claim types. (Learn more in "10 Important Ergonomic Aids for Office Workers".)
- Appropriate Work Area Height - Work at proper heights. Working height can be adjusted by providing adjustable work surfaces to accommodate the worker for proper reach and allow for easy changes should employees share a work station at different times. Work surfaces should promote good posture for the required posture at that station (sitting or standing). (Learn more in "The Importance of Setting Up Ergonomic Workstations for Office Workers".)
- Reduce Excessive Forces - Providing a mechanical advantage should be incorporated into the work station when possible. If workers are required to exert high forces the work piece should be located stabilized so the forces are minimized and repetitive strain injuries can be reduced. Managing exerted forces can also be reduced in part by providing proper workstation height.
- Reduce Excessive Repetition - Repetition, combined with other risks factors such as high force or weight and/or awkward body postures, can contribute to the formation of a variety of ergonomic injuries. Avoid excessive repetitive tasks through worker rotation, increasing number of workers assigned to perform the task, adding extra rest breaks, and/or developing standard work processes that eliminate repetitive tasks if possible. Learn more in "Breaks During Work Are Necessary for Employee Well-Being and Work Performance".) Consider job enlargement or job enrichment to keep workers moving in different ways throughout a shift rather than repeating one motion over and over.
- Reduce Static Load - Minimize static load of muscles (prolonged exertion of a body part without moment, such as in static postures) since this can cause fatigue in the muscles. Even the act of sitting still for long periods in a static posture can result in a large static load on the body as pressure is not relieved through motion. (Learn more in "8 Important Ergonomic Aids for Drivers".) Anti-fatigue mats, mechanical assistance (such as tools partially supported by cords or other methods), or an increase in the number of workers involved in a task can help to reduce static loads.
- Minimize Direct Pressure - Long-term contact with a hard surface, like gripping a pair of pliers, is a good example of what is meant by direct pressure, also known as constant pressure. Standing on a hard floor can also be direct pressure. To avoid this type of pressure, tool and surface modifications are often needed. Things such as adding a cushioned grip, contouring the handle, obtaining tools of a size that better fit the hand ergonomically, using tools with mechanical assistance (such as spring loaded scissors), and using anti-fatigue mats can greatly reduce fatigue and injuries from direct pressure issues. (Learn more in "6 Ergonomic Aids for Employees Who Work in a Standing Position".)
- Adjustable Tools - Adjustable work stations, desks, chairs, and tools can help reduce awkward postures, reduce fatigue, and increase productivity. It can also reduce costs in the long run when tools and work areas are shared between workers instead of multiple tools purchased for each worker in some cases such as shift work.
- Encourage Good Posture - Awkward postures can cause as much harm as a poorly designed work space.
- Standing Properly
- Bear your weight primarily on the balls of your feet.
- Keep your knees slightly bent.
- Keep your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Stand straight and tall with your shoulders pulled backward.
- Tuck your stomach in.
- Sitting Properly
- Sit up with your back straight and your shoulders back, fully back into the chair at the seat reference point.
- Distribute your body weight evenly on both hips.
- Bend your knees at a right angle.
- Keep your feet flat on the floor.
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Ergonomics is truly a science that can be simple to resolve or complex depending on the nature of the work task. These key areas to consider will surely help any employer identity the associated hazards with any job task. Once hazards are identified, work can begin to reduce the hazard(s) to benefit both worker and employer.