What is Ergonomics in the Workplace?

When you hear the word ergonomics, your brain probably jumps to office products – an ergonomic keyboard or ergonomic office chair, for example.

While ergonomics do come into play for desk and computer work, ergonomics in the workplace can also prevent serious injuries in industries like construction, manufacturing, materials moving, and more.

What are Ergonomics and Ergodynamics?

Ergonomics is the study of the relationship between people and their working environment, particularly regarding the equipment they use. The goal is to design equipment around the physical capabilities and comfort of the user, to minimize physical effort and discomfort, and to maximize efficiency.

In the context of ergonomics, the term "ergodynamics" is starting to be used to describe the study of ergonomics in a dynamic environment.

These fields of study sound esoteric, but they're fundamental to the health and safety of workers in many fields. That's because ergonomic solutions prevent or minimize musculoskeletal disorders.

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What is a Musculoskeletal Disorder (MSD)?

A musculoskeletal disorder, often abbreviated to MSD, affects the muscles, ligaments, tendons, cartilage, spinal discs, and the related nerves or blood vessels. Symptoms include recurrent pain, stiff joints, shooting pain, swelling, dull aches, and a loss of strength. You see musculoskeletal disorders most frequently in the back, neck, and shoulders.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), a musculoskeletal problem is only considered an MSD when it's caused by overexertion, repetitive motion, or a certain posture. So, for example, by workplace injury standards, if you get hurt by slipping and falling, that's not an MSD even if you have a musculoskeletal injury.

Examples of specific MSDs include pinched nerves, sprains/strains/tears, herniated discs, meniscus tears, hernias, carpal/tarsal tunnel syndrome, and more.

What Puts You at Risk for Musculoskeletal Disorders?

According to OSHA, risk factors for MSDs (sometimes referred to as ergonomic injuries) include:

  • Excessive exertion, like lifting heavy objects, pushing or pulling heavy loads, manually pouring materials, or maintaining control of heavy equipment and tools.
  • Performing repetitive tasks – the same or similar motion or series of motions, continually or frequently, for an extended period of time.
  • Working in awkward postures or the same posture for long periods, including prolonged or repetitive reaching above shoulder height, kneeling, squatting, leaning over a counter, using tools with bent wrists, or twisting the torso while lifting.
  • Localized pressure on a body part, like pressing the body or hand against hard or sharp edges or using the hand as a hammer.
  • Cold temperatures, when they happen in combination with any other risk factor, increase the potential for MSDs to develop.
  • Vibration of either the whole body or hand-arm. Vibration greatly increases the force that has to be exerted for a task, and hand-arm vibration damages small capillaries.
  • Combinations of any of the above risk factors

The risk of developing an MSD increases with age, but anyone can experience them if they're subject to the right (or rather, wrong) ergonomic hazards.

Why Do Ergonomics in the Workplace Matter?

Ergonomic injuries don't just cause personal suffering, they're also associated with high costs to employers. For example, a 2001 analysis concluded that MSDs caused more time away from work than any other nonfatal injury or illness. In 1999, nearly 1 million people took time off to treat and recover from work-related MSDs.

MSDs account for an estimated 130 million health care encounters a year, including outpatient, hospital, and emergency room visits. The Institute of Medicine estimates that work-related MSDs cost between $45 and 54 billion dollars annually in compensation costs, lost wages, and lost productivity.

These concerns are particularly relevant in the manufacturing and services sectors – together, they account for half of all MSD cases.

Can Ergonomics Be an OSHA Compliance Issue?

Right now, there's no specific OSHA ergonomic standard or training requirement – at least, not at the federal level.

That doesn't let employers off the hook, however. OSHA can still cite ergonomic hazards under the General Duty Clause, which makes an employer responsible for protecting workers from any serious and recognized workplace hazard, even if it's not addressed in a specific standard. It will also issue hazard alert letters to employers who report high rates of injuries that may be related to ergonomic issues.

However, OSHA has advised that as long as employers are making good faith efforts to reduce ergonomic hazards, they won't be a focus of enforcement efforts.

Ergonomics in the Construction Industry

Construction work is full of heavy lifting, repetitive motions, weird postures, all-weather working conditions, and vibration from hand-held or -guided power tools and heavy equipment like a bulldozer.

So it's no wonder MSDs are a major source of non-fatal injury and days away from work (DAFW). Nearly 46% of construction workers self-report one or more MSD-related symptoms, and over 27% of construction workers over the age of 55 report ergonomic injuries that limit their activities. This doesn't count construction workers who retire or change careers due to debilitating limitations as they get older.

Common suggestions for preventing or addressing ergonomic injury among construction workers include:

  • Changing the way materials are transported/minimizing manual handling of heavy materials by using mechanical equipment and making sure materials are delivered and stored close to where they'll be used
  • Storing materials to avoid lifting from the ground or from above shoulder height, whenever possible
  • Requiring loads above a certain weight to be handled with cooperative lifting
  • Keeping walkways clear so that carts and dollies can be used to move materials
  • Using ergonomic tools that are lighter weight, require less force, and/or fit the hand better
  • Reducing contact stress with knee pads and shoulder pads for kneeling or carrying materials
  • Rotating workers through jobs that require repetitive motion or create vibration stress
  • Train supervisors to monitor workers for MSD warning signs, like shaking their arms and hands, rolling their shoulders, bringing back or wrist braces to work, or modifying their equipment
  • Encourage early reporting of MSD symptoms – this facilitates early diagnosis and intervention, lower workers compensation claims and DAFW, and the identification of work areas that are causing ergonomic injury
  • Provide training on ergonomic principles so that workers understand the risks of ergonomic hazards and measures they can take to reduce or eliminate ergonomic injury.

These ideas are just a starting place for addressing ergonomic safety on a construction site. OSHA has many resources for general and construction-specific guidelines for ergonomic improvements and ways to control ergonomic hazards. So does the Laborer's Health and Safety Fund of North America.

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