What is ergonomics? Does it apply to me and my business? Do I have to do anything about ergonomics? While the term "ergonomics" is somewhat strange and unusual sounding, the concept is simple. Ergonomics can be thought of as the study of the human body at work. More specifically, ergonomics evaluates the ways that people interact in their work environments and identifies those aspects of the job or workplace that put workers at risk for a musculoskeletal injury. Ergonomics also identifies ways to modify jobs and the workplace in order to reduce the risk of these types of injuries.
What are musculoskeletal injuries? How do they differ from other types of workplace injuries? Musculoskeletal injuries account for approximately 1/3 of all workplace injuries. They target the muscles, ligaments, tendons, and bones. While they can be caused by sudden accidents such as slips and falls, ergonomics focuses on musculoskeletal injuries that are caused by excessive force, awkward postures, and repetitive motions. Carpel tunnel syndrome, rotator cuff injuries, and lower back injuries are common musculoskeletal injuries.
Ergonomic injuries develop slowly over time when muscles, ligaments, tendons, and bones are strained and/or overused. They often first present themselves as minor aches and pains that improve when the employee is away from work. These minor symptoms are often ignored and not reported to management or supervision. If left untreated - and if the job and workplace are not modified - ergonomic injuries can escalate into serious conditions that require interventions such as surgery and physical therapy.
It's easy to see that "bad" ergonomics can have serious negative impacts on worker health and safety. Employees with serious injuries are often out of work or have work restrictions. Other employees may be injured if the conditions that caused the injury are not addressed. Ergonomic injuries that result in lost time, restricted time, or medical care beyond first aid are considered OSHA recordable and must be added to your OSHA Log. Each of these items cost your company time and money.
Does OSHA regulate ergonomics? Yes and No. OSHA's Ergonomic Standard was in effect for approximately 2 months before it was rescinded back in 2000. While the Congressional Review Act prohibits OSHA from publishing a standard that is essentially the same as a former one, ergonomics remains an important focus for OSHA. It has published ergonomic guidelines for specific industries such as the meatpacking, poultry processing and nursing home industries. It conducts outreach via training materials, on-site consultations for small and medium businesses, and has "eTools" that provide ergonomic checklists and other evaluation aids.
OSHA can issue violations and pursue other enforcement actions related to ergonomics via the General Duty Clause, otherwise known as Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. It requires each employer to "furnish to each of his employees ... a place of employment which is free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm" (italics added by Cashins). With all the emphasis on ergonomics it's easy to understand that OSHA would consider many ergonomic hazards to be "recognized". Likewise, it's easy to see that some ergonomic hazards are capable of causing serious, debilitating injury - and that the General Duty Clause can be used.
How can I improve ergonomics in my workplace? First and foremost, talk to your employees. Do they experience musculoskeletal discomfort or pain? Which jobs are difficult to perform? What ideas do they have to improve the workplace? Next, assess your workplace for the following ergonomic risk factors: excessive force (are workers required to lift, push, or pull heavy loads?), awkward postures (reaching, bending, or twisting of the head, neck, spine, or other body parts), and repetition (using the same body parts and movements excessively throughout the day).
Finally, modify the job and the work environment to reduce the risk of ergonomic injuries. Use adjustable chairs, tables, etc. and lift assist devices. Redesign workstations so that awkward body postures are eliminated. Purchase tools that allow for comfortable gripping and straight wrists. Rotate jobs in order to reduce the amount of time that any one employee is using repetitive motions.
Cashins and Associates can evaluate your workplace for ergonomic hazards and help identify practical solutions. Click on the link below to request a free estimate.