Elements of Ergonomics Programs
Adapted from Workplace Safety and Health Topics, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
Why should employers design an effective ergonomics program to prevent work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs)? They are costly and can significantly reduce worker productivity and morale. Workers suffering from MSDs have difficulty meeting the demands of their jobs. An estimated 31% of nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses are related to MSDs. The median days away from work for a WMSD is 12 days, compared to eight days off for other work-related injuries. Ergonomics programs enable employers to detect WMSD problems and develop solutions. This approach prevents further losses in productivity, quality and profit by lowering rates of absenteeism, lost time injury and worker compensation premiums.
First, a few definitions:
- Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are disorders of the muscles, nerves, tendons, ligaments, joints, cartilage or spinal discs that are caused by sudden or sustained physical exertion and are not the result of any instantaneous non-exertion event (e.g., slips, trips or falls). The pain ranges in severity from mild/occasional to intense/chronic.
- Work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs) are MSDs that can be attributed to the work environment and the performance of work; are made worse or longer lasting by work conditions that require employees to lift, push, pull or carry many or irregularly shaped objects; maintain awkward/ unnatural postures; withstand cold temperatures; withstand vibrations from machinery and tools; and increase the intensity, frequency and duration of activities.
- An ergonomics program is a systematic process for identifying, analyzing and controlling workplace risk factors, often for reducing musculoskeletal disorders
Develop a Proactive Approach
To design an ergonomic intervention for WMSDs you must understand work processes, job tasks, equipment and workplace layouts. Your first objective is to determine whether machines or people are best suited to complete a particular job task. Ideally, workers should not experience undue stress or strain when using tools, job methods, workstation layouts and materials. Develop a proactive engineering approach that eliminates the risk factors for WMSDs in that job. Proactive action can help management and workers anticipate and prevent WMSD problems. Ergonomic Guidelines for Manual Material Handling1 outlines a proactive action plan in four steps: 1) look for clues, 2) prioritize jobs or improvements, 3) make improvements and 4) maintain involvement (2007).
Imagine an appliance manufacturer designed a new assembly line that prevents WMSDs without limiting production. Management evaluated musculoskeletal injury patterns, risk factors and possible engineering solutions. Assembly line workers, engineers and management recognized job risk factors and cooperatively planned a new assembly line. Workers now use pneumatic tools to open clamps and lift heavy appliances to reduce awkward postures and static (constant) exertion forces. Workers also use height-adjustable turn tables, work tables and shelving units to reduce risks associated with overhead work, reaching, bending and maintaining awkward postures. Once management establishes baseline injury rates, follow up on symptom surveys to determine injury trends and outcomes. Then, periodically fine-tune the production line as workers become more skilled in their jobs.
NIOSH’ Guide to Preventing WMSDs
NIOSH has a step-by-step guide to evaluate and address musculoskeletal concerns in your workplace. There are seven simple steps:
Step 1: Identify risk factors. Incidents of possible WMSDs are either isolated to a particular job/task or widespread, affecting multiple departments. Records of complaints and injuries are often enough to reveal the scope of a WMSD problem. OSHA logs and company medical records are readily available to most employers. These records can be used to calculate incidence rates (i.e. new cases) and prevalence rates (i.e. new and old cases) of MSD problems, which come in handy for step 3.
Step 2: Involve and train management and workers. Ergonomics training would be beneficial for all workers exposed to conditions that contribute to MSDs. Employees know their own jobs better than anyone else does. Workers must be given the opportunity to discuss problems as they see them. Management and workers need to understand ergonomics if they are to correctly identify and solve workplace MSD problems. Ergonomics training enables managers, supervisors and employees to identify the risk
factors for WMSDs, recognize the signs and symptoms of WMSDs and develop strategies that reduce and prevent WMSDs.
Step 3: Collect health and medical evidence. Determine the scope and characteristics of the problem by collecting health and medical evidence of WMSDs. It is essential to follow up on workers whose jobs cause undue physical fatigue, stress or discomfort. If employees report their symptoms early and openly, you can take corrective measures to delay the development of MSDs. In a scenario where workers in a certain department report more MSD problems than workers in other departments, it is best to immediately study possible MSD risk factors in that department.
Step 4: Implement your ergonomic program. There are five approaches to control WMSD risk factors. Elimination is the most effective way to reduce MSD risk factors in the workplace. The Hierarchy of Controls also includes substitution, engineering controls, administrative controls and personal protective equipment. In ergonomics, engineering controls (isolating the hazard), substitution (replacing the hazard) and/or elimination (removing the hazard) can be highly effective. Personal protective equipment (PPE) and administrative controls are not as likely to reduce or eliminate WMSDs.
Step 5: Evaluate your ergonomic program. You can use a variety of techniques to measure the effectiveness and benefits of your ergonomic program. Compare the following data before and after the intervention: job analyses, checklists, symptom surveys, OSHA form 300 logs, employee absentee rates, turnover rates, workers’ compensation costs, productivity indicators, quality of products and services and savings. Remember that workers will not experience the benefits of your ergonomic program immediately. It can take months for old MSD symptoms to disappear, and you will need to modify your intervention if new MSD symptoms appear.
Step 6: Promote worker recovery through health care management and return-to-work. Develop a return-to-work program in which modified jobs, restricted duties or temporary job transfers are provided to accommodate employees with WMSDs; educate and train employees to recognize and report signs and symptoms of WMSDs and encourage employees who report symptoms of WMSDs to speak to the qualified health care provider.
Step 7: Maintain management commitment and employee involvement. Research shows that management commitment is crucial to the success of musculoskeletal health awareness training and WMSD interventions. Management is responsible for encouraging worker input on real or suspected job hazards, ways to control these hazards and how best to implement interventions.
NIOSH recommends ergonomics programs be used to supplement existing occupational health and safety management systems. Organizations that have identified possible WMSDs can contact NIOSH for a free, customized Health Hazard Evaluation (HHE). WMHS
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