When I was a boy there was no such thing as ergonomics, or if there was we sure hadn’t heard of it in Lowell, Indiana, in the 1950s. That doesn’t mean that ergonomics wasn’t a problem.

My dad had told me to cut up some tree limbs and stack them in a pile. I got out the handsaw and got onto my knees and started to saw the limbs. Dad stopped me and said I needed to get the sawhorses out of the garage and lay the limbs across the horses so I wouldn’t have to work on my knees. I knew that made sense, but I have to admit that I hated to take the time to set up those horses. I just wanted to get done as fast as I could and go do something other than work. Looking back, I am sure that the job probably got done faster using the sawhorses, plus it was much easier on my knees.

I can still remember my mother getting a bowl of water and laying newspapers on the kitchen table where she would sit and peel potatoes. At the time I never even thought about why she just didn’t stand at the sink, but now looking back I am sure it was to save her back from leaning over the sink. In the Midwest we ate potatoes at every meal, and I can’t imagine how many potatoes she peeled over the years. This was definitely an ergonomics problem that she had recognized and corrected.

Another name

I think I would like ergonomic safety better if they called it another name. Ergonomics just makes it sound intimidating or technical. I think others feel the same way. For example, if you asked a worker on the plant floor if you could do an ergonomics assessment, he would probably roll his eyes and think it was just a waste of time. On the other hand, ask a worker if you could take a look at lifting and push-pull hazards and he’ll probably be more receptive.

Ergonomics has also been so focused on office ergonomics that many people automatically relate the word ergonomics to office workstations. Actually, the opportunities for ergonomically related injuries for the hands-on worker are unlimited. Having a solid ergonomics program will reduce injuries.

Tell-tale signs

The first step in a good ergonomics program for industry is an assessment of past injuries. If basic injury reporting is taking place, it should be relatively easy to identify those injuries that are related to ergonomics.

Strains, sore arms, shoulders, wrists and other muscle-related injuries might be related to some ergonomics issues. Identifying these injuries and their causes will direct your ergonomics program.

Are you seeing the following words on doctors’ reports: bursitis, tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, neck and back injuries, strains/sprains, trigger finger, tennis elbow?

The doctors may also be using these terms in their diagnoses:

  • CTDs (cumulative trauma disorders)
  • RSIs (repetitive stress injuries)
  • RMIs (repetitive motion injuries).

All of these are considered MSDs (musculoskeletal disorders). MSDs can affect muscles, tendons, nerves, joints and spinal disks.

Ask questions

If these types of injuries are occurring, then you need to ask some basic questions such as:

  • Are the ergonomic injuries happening in primarily one area or task?

  • Are the muscle-related injuries of one type, such as elbow problems or back injury?

  • Are the workers in the area a diverse group as to age, work experience and physical size?

    Muscle strains and related injuries have to be looked at closely to verify that they are caused by work. If the worker has tendonitis, but plays tennis two or three times a week, there is a good chance that the cause of injury has nothing to do with work.

    Does the employee have a medical or injury history related to the problem? In other words, does the worker who is having back pain have a history of back problems?

    With this information you will be able to identify where you would begin your ergonomics evaluations.

    Look at the following factors during your evaluation:

    Force — the amount of physical effort required by a person to do a task or operate tools or equipment.

    Vibration — are the employees using vibratory tools?

    Contact stress — putting localized pressure on a part of the body.

    Static position — standing or sitting in one position for extended periods.

    Posture — awkward postures that put stress on the body.

    Overcoming barriers

    There are several barriers that you may run into when implementing an ergonomics program.

    Hazards may be hard to find — Don’t fall into the trap of feeling that you can look at a task for a few minutes and be able to identify the ergonomic hazards. Although there are occasionally obvious hazards such as heavy lifting or bending, there are also many hazards that require a more detailed approach.

    Change may be hard to accept — Even when an ergonomic improvement is made to a work area, the improvements are not always accepted by the workers or, for that matter, management. Ergonomic efforts will need the entire support of management and the workforce.

    Don’t let “cost” scare you off — Although there can be instances where an ergonomic improvement is cost-prohibitive, it is generally not so. Many times simple adjustments and changes to the work area are all that is needed.

    What’s the assessment?

    Ergonomics assessments can be informal, and it is a good idea to get workers to participate. The worker in the area being assessed can point out any problems, and they may already have ideas on how to improve the ergonomics of the work area.

    Use a form for your assessment — a simple checklist that directs your focus to ergonomic hazards and provides documentation for each task reviewed.

    Very often simple improvements such as rearranging things can be done immediately and can result in reduced medical costs and fewer lost workdays.

    Ergonomics programs are a good fit for safety committee teams. The more employee involvement, the more successful the program.