It didn’t take long for me to become confused when I was first introduced to ergonomics. So many technical and medical terms, plus I kept shuttling back and forth between computer workstations and assembly line work.

I’ve since simplified my approach to ergonomics: “Don’t put your body in a bind.” I also address computer workstations as a stand-alone initiative. As you work to comply with OSHA’s new ergonomics standard (get yourself a copy if you already haven’t), there are ways to hopefully keep confusion to a minimum.

First, you want to become familiar with the causes of ergonomic problems to identify hazards in your workplace. Common culprits include:

Repetitive motion: If you’ve ever spent a day painting with a roller or brush you understand what repetitive motion is about. Still, we tend to have a hard time recognizing repetitive motion hazards —or we think there is no other way to do the job.

Awkward positions: Very often we’re talking about postures like leaning to one side or bending slightly forward. Remaining in these positions for extended periods can result in an injury. Gripping pliers that are fully extended or trying to carry an item by grasping it between the thumb and index finger are also awkward behaviors. Poor lifting techniques can also put our bodies “in a bind.”

Excessive force: Pulling or pushing on a piece of heavy equipment or repeatedly lifting heavy boxes can be damaging.

Pressure points: Placing pressure on parts of our bodies can result in injury. Common examples include resting our wrists on the edge of the desk when using a keyboard or spending long hours exerting pressure on the knees when laying floor tile.

Not taking breaks: Whether working on a computer or loading a truck, we need to take regular breaks so that we can rest and stretch.

On the shop floor

It’s easy to spot these activities when walking around a facility:

Situation: Larry places labels on boxes that come down a conveyor. He has to bend over at least six inches to place the labels. Larry develops lower back spasms.

Solution: Larry has placed himself in an awkward position. This is also a repetitive task. If the conveyor height can’t be adjusted, Larry may be able to work using a stool, or he could be moved to another area of the assembly line. He also needs to take regular breaks when he is doing this task.

Situation: Sharon works in the warehouse and has to remove heavy items from a shelf that is above her head. She has to stand on her tiptoes and extend her arms to pull the items down from the shelf. Sharon develops severe pains in her right shoulder.

Solution: This is an example of an awkward position. Sharon needs a step stool, and it may be more convenient to move the heavy items to a lower shelf.

Situation: In a refinery, Debby checks transmitters that are located two feet above walkways made of steel grating. She has to kneel on the grating as she checks the transmitters. Debby develops problems with her knees.

Solution: Her knees pressed against the grating are an example of a pressure point problem. Debby could wear kneepads, and as future transmitters are installed they need to be evaluated to see if they can be raised to a more convenient height.

Situation: Phil works at a bagging machine. He places a paper bag on a fill nozzle and fills the bag with 50 pounds of rice. He pulls the bag off of the nozzle, tucks the fill hole inward and turns to place the bag on a pallet. Phil has to bend and sometimes twist his body as he stacks the full bags on the pallet. Phil has problems with his back and shoulders.

Solution: This is a repetitive motion problem and the position of the pallet causes Phil to get into awkward positions. A pallet table that would raise and turn the pallet as needed should be installed.

Computer work

When assessing computer stations keep in mind what we’ve said about awkward position, repetitive motion, pressure points, excessive force, and breaks. We also need to evaluate the chair, monitor, keyboard/mouse, and the overall work station.

Typical computer station problems include situations such as the following:

Situation: Frank works at his computer station for several hours each day. He wears bifocals and tends to tilt his head back to see the monitor screen clearly. Frank has neck pain and stiffness.

Solution: Frank’s monitor is not positioned correctly, causing him to put his head in an awkward position. It should be repositioned.

Situation: Mercedes sits on the front section of the seat of her chair. Sitting forward fails to provide support for her back. Mercedes is suffering from lower back pain.

Solution: Mercedes should sit on the front of her chair so her feet will touch the floor. She needs a footrest.

Situation: Cassie works in purchasing and spends extended time on the telephone as she works at the computer checking purchase information. To keep her hands free, Cassie holds the phone by tilting her head to trap it between her head and shoulder.

Solution: After performing this behavior for years she develops severe pains in her shoulder and back. To avoid this awkward position, Cassie needs a head set for her phone calls.

Remember, now that the OSHA ergonomics standard has been issued, your first move should be to read up on the requirements. And as we’ve seen in the situations described here, there can fairly simple solutions to prevent your employees from getting their bodies in a bind.

What the standard says

By October 14, 2001, employers must begin to distribute information on OSHA ergonomics standard to all employees and begin receiving and responding to reports of repetitive motion-related injuries.

Within seven calendar days of receiving a report, you must determine if the employee’s job meets the action trigger for further action.

If the job meets the action trigger, you’re faced with deadlines for providing medical treatment and implementing an ergo program.

If you had an ergo program written and in place before November 14, 2000, you can continue with your existing program, provided that it includes management leadership, employee participation, job hazard analysis and control, training, and program evaluation. You must have completed an evaluation of these provisions before January 16, 2001. To qualify for the grandfather clause, you also must have a medical management policy in place by January 16, 2002.

You can download a copy of the standard from OSHA’s Web site: