Ignoring Ergonomics Can Be Costly

Addressing ergonomic issues can reduce injuries.

By Alexandra Walsh

Ergonomics is the study of work. From an Occupational Safety and Health Administration perspective, it is the process of designing the job to fit the employee—rather than forcing the employee’s body to fit the job.

This process may include modifying tasks, the work environment, and the equipment to meet the needs of an employee to alleviate physical stress on their body and eliminate work-related musculoskeletal disorders, or MSDs.

The goal of ergonomics is to eliminate injuries and disorders associated with overusing soft tissues such as muscles or tendons; awkward postures; and repeated tasks. Such common injuries include carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis, sprains and strains.

OSHA, which had spent a decade studying ergonomics, estimated $1 of every $3 spent on workers’ compensation back in 2000 stemmed from ergonomic issues. The direct costs attributable to MSDs were $15 billion to $20 billion a year.

More recent data in 2013 from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows ergonomics remains a costly issue for businesses. BLS data shows these types of injuries account for one-third of cases involving days away from work. BLS data further explains employees suffering from ergonomics-related injuries required more time off the job on average (11 days) than those with other types of workplace injuries and illnesses (eight days).

OSHA Requirements

OSHA has made it clear, even in the absence of a specific industry guideline, employers still can be cited for a violation of the General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1):

Each employer shall furnish to each of his/her employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his/her employees.

This clause requiring employers to keep their workplaces free from recognized serious hazards would include ergonomic hazards.

In deciding whether a General Duty citation should be issued with respect to ergonomics, OSHA will review the following factors:

  • Whether an ergonomic hazard exists
  • Whether that hazard is recognized
  • Whether the hazard is causing, or likely to cause, serious physical harm
  • Whether a feasible means exists to reduce the hazard.

OSHA has also specifically noted it will not focus on enforcement efforts against employers who are making a good faith effort to reduce ergonomic hazards.

Identifying Problems

An important part of the ergonomic process is a periodic review of the facility, specific workstation designs and work practices, and the overall production process—all from an ergonomics perspective.

This includes identifying existing problems which can be obtained from reviewing company written sources such as:

  • OSHA Form 300 injury and illness logs
  • OSHA Form 301 reports
  • Workers’ compensation records
  • Worker reports of problems.

However, combined with reviewing injury and illness records, there is a more forward-looking approach.

Namely, being proactive in identifying potential ergonomic issues that have gone unnoticed or resulted from facility changes before they result in MSDs. These include observations of workplace conditions and work processes. Ergonomic job analyses. Workplace surveys. First aid logs. Accident and near-miss investigation reports. Insurance company reports.

Worker interviews are also a common proactive method for identifying ergonomics-related injury risks.

Identifying Risk Factors

By looking critically at your workplace operations, you can identify risk factors and eliminate or control them as early as possible.

The risk of an MSD injury depends on work positions and postures, how often the task is performed, the level of required effort, and how long the task lasts. The following are risk factors that may lead to the development of MSDs.

Exerting excessive force: Examples include lifting heavy objects, pushing or pulling heavy loads, manually pouring materials, maintaining control of equipment or tools.

Performing the same or similar tasks repetitively: Repeating the same motion or series of motions continually or frequently for an extended period of time.

Working in awkward or the same postures for long periods: Positions that place stress on the body such as prolonged or
repetitive reaching above the shoulder, kneeling, squatting, leaning over a counter, using a knife with wrists bent, or twisting the torso while lifting.

Localized pressure on the body: Pressing the whole body or part of the body, such as the hand, against hard or sharp edges, using the hand as a hammer.

Cold temperatures: Frigid conditions, in combination with any one of the above risk factors, may increase the potential for MSDs to develop. For example, many of the operations in meatpacking and poultry processing occur with a chilled product or in a cold environment. The same would certainly apply to operations at a well drilling site in cold temperatures.

Vibration: When the hand or arm experiences vibration, it can damage small capillaries that supply nutrients and can make hand tools more difficult to control. Vibration may cause a worker to lose feeling in their hands and arms, resulting in more force needed to control hand-powered tools (hammer drills, portable grinders, chainsaws)—in much the same way gloves limit feeling in the hands.

Combined exposure to several risk factors: Any or all of the above risks happening together may place workers at a higher risk for MSDs than exposure to any one risk.

Paying Attention to Worker Behaviors

In addition, employers should observe whether workers are exhibiting any of the following actions:

  • Modifying their tools, equipment, or work area
  • Shaking their arms and hands
  • Rolling their shoulders
  • Bringing back belts or wrist braces into the workplace.

These behaviors can be meaningful signs workers are experiencing ergonomic issues. Talk with them and review their work to see if any risk factors for MSDs are present. Workers can identify and provide important information about hazards in their workplaces. Their opinions and suggestions for change are most valuable.

Once worker actions and risk factors are identified, conducting an in-depth ergonomic job analysis can help offer solutions to prevent MSDs. An ergonomic job hazard analysis focuses on job tasks as a way to identify hazards before they occur. It focuses on the relationship between the worker, the task, the tools, and the work environment.

Utilizing Injury Reports

Comprehensive injury reporting is important to the success of an ergonomic process. The goal here is to properly assess, diagnose, and treat MSDs. Early reporting, diagnosis, and intervention can limit the severity of an injury, improve the effectiveness of treatment, minimize the likelihood of disability or permanent damage, and reduce workers’ compensation claims.

This will allow the employer to correctly identify work areas or specific tasks where injuries occur frequently or are most severe. This information helps improve ergonomics-related activities as well as guide healthcare providers in making their return-to-work and light-duty work decisions. OSHA’s injury and illness recording and reporting regulation (29 CFR Part 1904) requires employers to record and report
all work-related fatalities, injuries, and illnesses.

Using, and above all encouraging, such reports of MSD symptoms:

  • Reinforces worker training on recognizing MSD symptoms
  • Promotes early reporting of MSD symptoms
  • Allows for prompt medical evaluations for diagnosis, treatment, follow-up care
  • Reduces injury severity, the number of workers’ compensation claims, associated costs, the likelihood of permanent disability
  • Provides guidance on return-to-work and work placement restrictions during healing
  • Guides job modifications
  • Provides a mechanism to track and trend MSD injuries
  • Enables assessment of the effectiveness of work changes.

Putting Ergonomics to Work

Implementing an ergonomic process is effective in reducing the risk of developing MSDs in high-risk industries such as water well drilling. The following are important elements of an ergonomic process.

Provide management support: A strong commitment by management is critical to the overall success of an ergonomic process. Management should define clear ergonomic goals and objectives, discuss them with their workers, assign responsibilities to designated staff members, and communicate clearly with the workforce.

Involve workers: An approach where workers are directly involved in worksite assessments, developing solutions, and practicing ergonomic awareness is the essence of a successful ergonomic process. Workers can best identify and provide important information about hazards in their workplaces. Workers thus assist in the ergonomic process. They voice their concerns and suggestions for reducing exposure to risk factors. They evaluate worksite changes made resulting from an
ergonomic assessment.

Provide training: Training is an important element in the ergonomic process. It ensures workers are made aware of ergonomics and how it benefits them. They become informed about ergonomics-related concerns in the workplace. They understand the importance of reporting early symptoms of MSDs.

Evaluate progress: Periodically evaluating and taking corrective action are required to assess the effectiveness of the ergonomic process and ensure its continuous improvement and long-term success. Assessments should include determining whether goals set for the ergonomic process have been met and determining whether ergonomic solutions have been successful.

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Ergonomics doesn’t necessarily require a significant financial expenditure. Strong management commitment along with appropriate policies, procedures, and training ensure businesses can help workers avoid injuries and thus the costs associated with the loss of productivity and time away from work due to injury.

DACUM Codes
To help meet your professional needs, this column covers skills and competencies found in DACUM charts for drillers, pump installers, and geothermal contractors. DO refers to the drilling chart, PI refers to the pumps chart, and GO represents the geothermal chart. The letter and number immediately following is the skill on the chart covered by the column. This column covers: DOD-8; DOK-8, 9; DOL-1, 2, 3, 10; PIB-2; PIG-3; GOD-10; GOI-8, 9; GOJ-1, 2, 3, 10. More information on DACUM and the charts are available here.

Alexandra Walsh is the vice president of Association Vision, a Washington, D.C.–area communications company. She has extensive experience in management positions with a range of organizations.