Technology increased our expectations. We wanted more information all the time, faster ways of working and the ability to produce more. Like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice we wanted more and more and more.

And while more information, increased data and better methods of production are what we got, what we might not have expected was the increase in musculoskeletal injuries due to repetitive motion. Some data suggests that one-third of all injuries are related to repetitive work.

A careful reading of NIOSH and National Academy of Sciences research shows that ergonomic stressors are widespread and sometimes expensive. Knowing that, scientists and manufacturers provide just as widely spread solutions, from better desk chairs to hammers with handles that fit a hand.

Trouble is, some employers forget that new equipment always meets a bit of resistance from the “we’ve always done it this way” crowd, not to mention from those who don’t know how to apply new equipment to their work.

As usual, training can make the difference between new tools that aren’t used or aren’t used correctly and real mediation of ergonomic stressors. We need to expect that it will take time for employees to get used to a new way of working. New equipment must also be adapted to the worker who’ll use it since no two workers are alike.

Individual adjustability

Often times when an item is marked “ergonomic” it provides individual adjustability — that is, the product can be adjusted or reconfigured to “fit” the particular user. But when you don’t train the employee to adjust the equipment properly you’ve wasted time and money.

Training employees helps ergonomic adaptations work. In other words, fit the job to the worker rather than bending the worker to fit the job. It can pay off. First, of course, is early recognition of a potential musculoskeletal disorder (MSD). Research shows that early intervention can markedly reduce cost and time loss. Then, employees who are able to identify workplace ergonomic stressors feel more in control of their jobs, which, social scientists say, means better morale and increased productivity. Empowered, these employees can also sometimes suggest workable ergonomic adaptations.

An employee who recognizes that the monitor is too high or the mouse is too big can make appropriate adjustments. Workers on a line frequently pad sharp edges and make other modest but effective changes.

But what do we do about that new equipment? Some facilities found that when employees were asked to suggest what they needed, they could even help set priorities for acquisition based on available funding.

Of course, there are also examples of workplaces where employees could not identify what would make their job less ergonomically stressful. So, outside analyses were required. Sometimes it can be the safety person who’s studied some ergonomic information. Sometimes it pays off to bring in a consultant to do a workplace analysis.

All this needs to be figured with return-on-investment in mind. Will the analysis and fixes result in a break-even or advantageous financial situation? The aforementioned NIOSH and NAS research is full of examples to compare to your situation.

Instruction needed

Ideally, equipment purchased comes in a variety of sizes and features. Then employees decide which seat pan fits best and whether arms are helpful or just get in the way. At the workstation, employees need instruction in setting up new equipment. How does the seat go up and down? Will it fit the employee who works there on the second shift? It isn’t just putting in a new chair or keyboard: Effective ergonomic mediation requires adjustment and training.

Once in place, evaluation is important. Go back to the affected employees. Find out if the mediation worked and if it is still working. Was that screwdriver properly adjusted to make the job easier? Does the employee know how to adjust it now and in the future? Has the job changed enough that the tool needs to be replaced or changed? Remember, the “correct” angle on that keyboard may not fit every employee. Some find it easier to use a mouse on the left rather than the right. Although there are physiological means to measure what ought to work, employee opinion and acceptance plays a big part in whether mediation works.

Check with employees

Reported employer experience shows that ergonomic mediation brings about savings in lost days and injury cost. So, that’s one part of the evaluation, but checking with the employees who actually use the equipment and respecting individual needs and opinions pays off in employee job satisfaction, which can lead to greater productivity.

NIOSH and the National Academy of Sciences have reported all these ideas in print. Additionally, highly professional ergonomic professionals active in such groups as the Institute of Industrial Engineers can provide anecdotal and peer-reviewed support for your ergonomic adaptations.

SIDEBAR: Rooting out the problems

Reviewing and analyzing injury and illness records can help improve ergonomic conditions in the workplace. OSHA makes the following suggestions:

1) Review injury and illness records, which could include:

  • OSHA 300 Log forms (or OSHA 200 forms prior to 2002);
  • Workers’ compensation claims;
  • Group health insurance records;
  • First-aid logs;
  • Absentee and turnover records;
  • Records of employee complaints or grievances.

2) Identify potential MSD cases. Using the information sources above, try to identify entries that may indicate the presence of MSDs. Conditions that potentially constitute MSDs include:

  • Tendinitis;
  • Tenosynovitis;
  • Epicondylitis;
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome;
  • Bursitis;
  • deQuervain’s disease;
  • Ganglion cyst;
  • Thoracic outlet syndrome;
  • Less precise entries such as sprains, strains, tears or even just pain.

3) Categorize MSD cases by job, department, division, work task, etc., to determine whether patterns or trends exist. For example, look for instances where:

  • One unit (e.g., job, department or division) has a higher number of MSDs than other units in the company;
  • One unit has more severe MSDs than other units;
  • One unit's rate of MSDs has increased each year for several years;
  • One unit's rate of MSDs is higher than other companies doing the same job;
  • MSDs increase during a particular shift or time of the year;
  • MSDs increase when producing a particular product or when performing a particular work task.