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May 22, 2019

Using ergonomics to avoid employee workplace injuries

Many Americans spend over 2,000 hours per year working, and are often doing repetitive tasks, from typing to driving. Too often, the time spent on the job has an adverse effect on our bodies – especially our backs, arms, eyes and necks. Many employers today recognize the significant impact poorly designed workstations and equipment can have on their employees. Long-term exposure to workplace conditions can cause pain or long-term injury, and may contribute to lowered productivity, medical claims, loss of income and permanent disability. 

One strategy employers use to mitigate the negative effects of harmful workspaces is the use of ergonomics. Ergonomics has been shown to increase efficiency, productivity and reduce discomfort by designing the workplace to fit the user’s needs. Here are five steps employers can take to increase employee comfort on the job, increase productivity and lower the risk of work-related injuries.

1.  Understand ergonomics

If your employees perform well, your company will perform well. If your employees are uncomfortable or in pain, it is difficult for them to perform well. The goal of ergonomics is to provide a healthy working environment in which the workstation, design of equipment and layout of workflow is conducive to promoting good health. Ergonomics takes into account the different job tasks and body proportions among employees so that soreness and potential injury can be avoided.

2.  Understand musculoskeletal disorders

Ergonomics primarily addresses musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). MSDs are soft-tissue injuries that result from gradual exposure to low-level risk factors over time. Injury most often occurs in the:

  • Muscles
  • Nerves
  • Tendons
  • Ligaments
  • Joints
  • Cartilage
  • Blood vessels
  • Spinal discs.

Most of the time, the risk factors would not cause harm, but prolonged exposure make it difficult for the body to heal, resulting in a reduced ability of the body to function. The three risk factors that ergonomics addresses include:

  • Awkward posture
  • High force
  • Long frequency.

When these three primary ergonomic risk factors are combined, the chance of developing a MSD is increased.

3.  Identify ergonomic challenges in your workplace

It’s important that you identify the ergonomic challenges at each workstation or worksite. In order to do this, there are three steps that need to be taken.

  • Observe the workplace environment to identify possible MSD risk factors
  • Conduct a formal ergonomic assessment for each employee that may be experiencing risk factors to identify and document sources of risk
  • Generate potential solutions

4.  Set up the workstation and workflow

For each individual employee that is at risk, identify ergonomic issues and empower them to make changes to adjust their own work area.  For repeated actions and sustained postures, here are four solutions that should be considered:

  • Mechanical aids. These might include arm or wrist rests for keyboard use or substituting power tools for power tools. These are usually practical solutions that can make a tremendous difference.
  • Adjust the work standard. Allow employees to pace themselves by modifying the allotted time to complete the work tasks.
  • Use task rotation. Allow employees to move through different tasks during the day to avoid undue stress and repetition of any one type.
  • Create jobs that combine tasks that require different motions patterns. This may require redesigning the work setting.

For employees who work on a computer using a traditional desk set up, there are four elements that need to be addressed. These include:

  • Eyes to the source
  • Hands to input devices
  • Feet to floor
  • Body to the chair.

5.  Select the right equipment

There is a vast array of equipment for most jobs today on the market. Tool design elements that need to be considered include:

  • Repeated actions and sustained postures
  • Forceful actions (lifting, carrying, hoisting, pushing, etc.)
  • Prolonged contact stresses from tools, equipment, etc.
  • Posture
  • Vibration
  • Cold temperature
  • Hot temperature
  • Electrostatic fields
  • Electromagnetic radiation and magnetic fields

It’s in everyone’s best interest to consider ergonomic science when it comes the workplace. Poor working conditions are bad news for both employers and employees. If you are concerned about the ergonomics of your work environment, please contact a professional in the field of ergonomics that can assist you in assessing your working conditions and help redesign your worksite.

Marsh & McLennan (MMA) provides employers vital information and world-class resources related to employer-provided benefits programs and other employee products and services. Click here for more information or contact us here.