Industrial Ergonomics: What is it and Why should I Be Concerned?
Industrial Ergonomics: What Is It and Why Should I Be Concerned?
Ergonomics is defined as “the study of people’s efficiency in their working environment.” Yet in the world of health and safety, it tends to denote fitting a job or a task to a person. This is done for many reasons: comfort, increased productivity, and reduction of muscle fatigue, to name a few. But the driving force behind the call for an Ergonomics standard seems to be the frequency of work-related MSD (Musculoskeletal Disorders). MSDs might be something like Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, Tendonitis, muscle strains, or lower back pain.
In an office setting, ergonomics might be concerned with the height of your computer monitor, the placement of your wrists on your desk, the type of mouse you use, or if your chair is properly adjusted. In an industrial setting, however, things begin to get more involved. You see, chairs and computer monitor heights are easily adjustable. That might not be the case with the operating controls of a piece of industrial machinery. Instead of adjusting things to fit you, solutions may – at times – involve fitting you to the job.
When we’re discussing industrial ergonomics, you might be looking at how to raise a worker to a comfortable height so that they are not reaching or working overhead, how to prevent them from constant or repetitious bending, how to ease the force necessary to turn a valve, how to reduce twisting, and other things related to working on a manufacturing or plant floor. Some of these will be able to be solved by providing workers with safe access and other customizable work platforms, and others will need to be solved by changing the tools that are being used (such as using a longer-handled tool) or changing the process altogether. In some instances, it could be a matter of training personnel to maintain correct body position or periodically changing an employee’s task.
So there’s the “what”. We know what ergonomics is as well as what it means in an industrial setting, but what about the “why”? Why should you care about industrial ergonomics? Well, that one is pretty simple. It’s two-fold, really: 1 – you care about your employees and 2 – you care about your money. Musculoskeletal Disorders, in 2011, accounted for 33% of all worker injury and illness cases – 1/3 of all cases! Those cases amounted to $50 billion dollars in direct costs paid out by employers/insurance carriers (don’t forget that indirect costs are often 4-5x the amount of direct costs). And, since MSD’s are difficult if not impossible to see on things like an X-ray or an MRI, it sometimes takes longer to diagnose, and could take much longer to treat, than something like a simple fracture.
MSDs occur over time. Because of this, the earlier they are recognized and treated, the better your chance of a quick recovery. The problem is that employees often may not even know they’ve suffered any kind of injury. You’ll hear things like, “Oh, I just tweaked my back” or “My wrists are sore”, but they will continue to work thinking it will go away – at least for a while. MSDs can be hard to prove, but can also be just as hard to disprove, so from a worker’s compensation standpoint if an employee claims it was work related, count on it being accepted as work related. This – aside from the well-being of your employees in general – is the key reason why you want to prevent MSDs – and they are preventable.
As mentioned, identifying and managing risk factors in the workplace can help reduce the frequency of MSDs and, hopefully, eliminate them altogether. However, it is also necessary to take personal risk factors into account as well. Poor work practices, poor health habits, poor rest and recovery time, as well as poor nutrition, fitness, and hydration have all been linked to increased risk for MSDs. Employee wellness programs can help with these factors in addition to observing and correcting work practices.
Ergonomics, when done properly, can save you a lot of money and prevent a great deal of pain and discomfort for your employees. As they say, an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.