Injuries and Illness

How to Prevent a SPATE of Ergonomic Injuries

The goal of ergonomics is to fit jobs to workers to make work easier, safer, and more comfortable. The problem comes when there’s a poor fit, which puts damaging stress on workers’ bodies. Here are some tips for improving your employees’ health—and your organization’s bottom line.

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) include a group of medical conditions that involve the nerves, tendons, muscles, and supporting structures such as discs in the backbone. The OSHA Required Training for Supervisors monthly newsletter says that examples of common workplace MSDs include carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis, neck pain, and low back pain.

Who’s Affected?

MSDs occur most often in jobs that involve:

  • Repetition—doing the same motion over and over for long periods each day

  • Use of physical force—constant lifting, pushing, or pulling

  • Awkward postures—working with the back and neck bent down or twisted, or working with hands above the head

  • Contact stress—using the hand or knee as a hammer

  • Vibration—using vibrating tools or equipment 

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What Are the Symptoms?

The earlier that MSDs are diagnosed and treated, the better the outcome. So keep these common symptoms in mind and encourage employees to come to you if they experience any of them on the job:

  • Back and neck: shooting pain, stiffness

  • Shoulders: pain, stiffness, loss of mobility

  • Arms and legs: shooting or stabbing pains, numbness

  • Elbow or knee joints: pain, swelling, stiffness, soreness

  • Hands and wrists: pain, swelling, tingling, numbness, coldness, burning sensation, loss of strength or coordination

  • Fingers: loss of mobility, snapping or jerking movements, loss of strength, loss of feeling, severe pain

  • Thumbs: pain at the base of the thumb

  • Feet and toes: tingling, numbness, coldness, stiffness, burning sensation 

What Role Does OSHA Play?

Although OSHA currently has no ergonomic standard, it has created guidelines for various industries, including nursing homes, retail grocery operations, poultry processing facilities, and, most recently, printing plants. OSHA says that many of the ergonomic principles found in these guidelines can be adapted for other industries, so it might be worth taking a look if you’re searching for in-depth advice about preventing MSDs in your department.

Even though there are no regulations and possibly no guidelines for your industry, OSHA says that you still have an obligation under the General Duty Clause to keep your workplace free from recognized serious hazards, including ergonomic hazards. OSHA warns that it will cite employers for ergonomic hazards under the General Duty Clause or issue ergonomic hazard letters, where appropriate, as part of its overall enforcement program.

What Can You Do?

To remember the steps OSHA recommends for preventing most ergonomic injuries, we suggest you think of the acronym SPATE (for Safe work practices, PPE, Administrative controls, Training, and Engineering controls):

  • Safe work practices, such as safe lifting techniques or use of mechanical material-handling aids to eliminate hazards

  • PPE, such as gloves and kneepads, to protect workers from contact and vibration stress

  • Administrative controls, such as worker rotation, more task variety, and more frequent rest breaks, if necessary, to reduce stress on the body

  • Training, to teach employees to maintain a neutral posture while they work (for example, keeping the head straight and facing forward, not hunching shoulders, maintaining the back’s natural curves, keeping elbows close to the sides, keeping wrists in a straight line with forearms, standing with feet shoulder-width apart and weight balanced, and sitting with thighs parallel to the floor, knees bent about 90 degrees, and feet flat on the floor)

  • Engineering controls, such as redesigning workstations, tools, and equipment to increase worker comfort and reduce ergonomic risks

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What’s the Payoff?

Making sure the work areas you supervise are free of ergonomic hazards can have many positive effects, including:

  • Lower MSD incident rates

  • Reduced absences

  • Increased productivity by making jobs easier and more comfortable for employees

  • Reduced turnover

  • Lower workers’ compensation and other healthcare costs

  • Reduced worker fatigue and improved worker safety

  • Improved morale

With benefits like these, it’s easy to see why ergonomics should be a standard part of every supervisor’s safety program. Is it part of yours?

So now you should have a pretty good idea of what you can do to improve the ergonomics of your workplace. Tomorrow we’ll look at a cost-effective tool for training your workers on these health- and money-saving measures.