AN EMPLOYER'S GUIDE TO ERGONOMICS
At its core, ergonomics is fitting the workstation and work environment to the employee’s physical body and not the other way around. Ergonomics can and should be applied to all work areas – whether that’s outside a building, inside a building, on a production line or at a desk.
The application of ergonomic principles is most effective when used before problems arise, before they cause severe injury or occupational disease. The list of goals of a proactive program start with showing that the company cares about the individuals who work there, their safety and health. A sound ergonomics program works to help employees feel physically good throughout their day, without undue physical stress, strain or injury; and that helps keep them able to work at their full capabilities. The end or culminating goal is a smoothly operating business with low workers’ compensation claims and a lessening of injury severity when injuries do occur.
Ergonomics is one large piece of a company’s strong workplace safety program. (To learn more about creating a safety committee and action plan, click here.)
Start with a walk-through of your workplace. Ask your supervisors and workers about:
- Manual lifting, carrying, pushing, pulling or other physically demanding work.
- Work that is done in awkward postures, such as bending, reaching or twisting.
- Hand- or wrist-intensive work, such as using tools, assembling parts, packing boxes or data entry.
- Processes with bottlenecks or quality problems. (What’s causing the bottleneck or production problem could connect to poor employee ergonomics.)
- Work that involves extended hours in one position, such as standing on a production line or sitting at a desk with a computer.
Your first step in implementing an ergonomics program is to analyze the work activities. This process will help you find potential sources of injury and the actual cause of any existing problems. Often an analysis will show only small and inexpensive changes are necessary. Employees working in each particular area are a great source of information about what is a problem or could be an injury-causing problem, and what might be a solution. Often, these employees will have ideas for using resources at hand to solve ergonomic concerns.
In scoping the worksite, there are several analyses that you can perform; depending on the maturity of your company ergonomics and safety programs you may want to use all of these below or pick those most useful to your situation.
- Task analysis: What jobs do your employees perform daily, and how do they achieve them? Task analysis is not just a job description. You will need your employees to give input on how they fulfill all the elements of their jobs. Pay attention to note if there are repetitive tasks or forceful exertions; frequent, heavy or overhead lifts; awkward work positions; use of vibrating equipment; poor air quality or poor lighting.
- Work area analysis: Look at the physical components of the work area, such as equipment location, work surfaces and chair adjustments. You want to design the job to fit the employee, rather than the employee having to adapt to a poorly designed work area.
- Environmental analysis: Examine the area surrounding the work location. Look at factors including lighting, glare, temperature, humidity, noise, vibration – all of these affect employee comfort and job performance.
- Organizational analysis: Take a broader view – at the department and/or company-wide level. Look at staffing levels, assignment of responsibilities, work schedules, overtime policies, and other aspects of “working conditions.” In addition to affecting employee fatigue and stress, these “HR issues” can have the most significant impact on risk factors such as repetition, static loading or physical exertion that involves a static or stationary posture for a length of time, as well as the duration of exposure to any risk factor(s). These issues generally are outside the control of individual employees but within management’s control.
In addition to asking questions and listening during the safety walk-through, signs there may already be a problem include:
- Injury and illness logs or workers’ compensation “loss runs;” they may reveal history of musculoskeletal disorders such as carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis, tenosynovitis, low back injury, or other joint injuries. These may be entered generally, such as “shoulder pain,” but can be indicators of an issue if the logs indicate injury is severe, persistent, or is happening to more than one employee.
- Worker complaints of discomfort, fatigue, strain or pain that does not go away after a single overnight rest – especially when the issues connect to work tasks or office / worksite conditions. Supervisors regularly listening to and checking in with their teams can be valuable here.
Corrective actions and implementation
During the worksite analysis, you may have identified some quick fixes that could be easily implemented and would immediately benefit your employees. Quick fixes can be small changes, such as footrests or cushioned floor mats, that help alleviate problems with awkward and static postures. Employees themselves can implement some of these changes. Employees may also have suggestions for low-cost solutions. You may even notice “homemade” work area or tool alterations employees made to make their work areas more comfortable or easier to use. Often these solutions can be used by other employees too.
Once they have been trained on the principles of ergonomics, employees should participate in solving many of the problems with the setup of their work areas. Ergonomics, and any safety effort, works best when it is “owned” by each employee and strongly backed by management.
Employee training and education
Training employees is an essential element for your ergonomic program. The goal of a good training program is to help employees take responsibility for their well-being, identify risk factors that may cause ergonomics-related injuries, recognize the signs and symptoms of work-related injuries, and participate in the development of strategies to control and prevent them. Give employees the necessary tools to address concerns on their own, as well as an understanding of what to do if they have a problem that they can’t solve alone.
- Use safety committees or ergonomic committees and encourage employees from throughout the company to participate.
- Provide employees with awareness training — it is best to make it interactive, understandable, relevant and useful.
Evaluation & going forward
- After using a solution for a few weeks, look at the job / workstation again and talk with the employees to learn if the fix is working as planned. You can use ergonomic principles and evaluation tools found on many websites to determine if the solution reduced the risk of injury. If a solution does not reduce the risk of injury or is not being used as intended, repeat the analysis to find a more effective fix.
- Make sure the solution didn’t create new hazards or other problems.
- Celebrate your successes – recognize your company’s accomplishments in meetings, company newsletters, and on safety bulletin boards. If an employee came up with a good solution for a workstation share that idea – others may want to do the same for their work areas.
- Think ergonomics when making changes to your facilities, equipment and processes, and while purchasing new tools.
- Create a schedule of regular walk-throughs or check-ins, looking for ergonomic successes and issues that need attention.