The Best Defense Against WMSDs

A good ergonomics program is a key for companies today.

By Alexandra Walsh

Every water well drilling company should have an effective ergonomics program to prevent work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs).

Does your business have one? Do you exactly know what are MSDs and WMSDs? Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are:

  • Disorders of the muscles, nerves, tendons, ligaments, joints, cartilage, or spinal discs
  • Caused by sudden or sustained physical exertion
  • Not the result of any instantaneous non-exertion action (slips, trips, or falls)
  • Rated in severity from mild/occasional to intense/chronic pain.

WMSDs are MSDs that can be attributed to the work environment and the performance of work. They are made worse or longer-lasting by work conditions that require employees to:

  • Lift, push, pull, or carry many or irregularly shaped objects
  • Maintain awkward or unnatural postures
  • Withstand cold temperatures
  • Withstand vibrations from machinery and tools
  • Increase the intensity, frequency, and duration of activities.

Why It Matters

Musculoskeletal disorders at work are costly and can significantly reduce worker productivity and morale. Workers suffering from musculoskeletal disorders have difficulty meeting the demands of their jobs.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that about 30% of nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses annually were related to MSDs. The average number of days away from work for a WMSD is 12 days, compared to eight days off for other work-related injuries.

Ergonomics programs enable employers to detect WMSD problems and develop solutions. This approach prevents further losses in productivity, quality, and profit by lowering rates of absenteeism, lost time injury, and workers’ compensation premiums.

Planning an Ergonomics Program

To design an ergonomic intervention for WMSDs, employers must understand work processes, job tasks, equipment, and workplace layouts. The first objective is to determine whether machines or people are best suited to complete a particular job task. Ideally, workers should not experience undue stress or strain when using tools, job methods, workstation layouts, and materials.

Then, develop a proactive engineering approach that eliminates the risk factors for WMSDs in that job. Proactive action can help management and workers both anticipate and prevent WMSD problems.

A proactive action plan:

  • Looks for clues
  • Prioritizes jobs or improvements
  • Makes improvements
  • Maintains involvement.

Tasks Prone to Musculoskeletal Disorders

To identify specific jobs or job tasks that put workers at risk for WMSD problems, employers need to lay out the groundwork for early intervention and prevention.

A single job setting may present more than one risk factor for WMSDs. The level of risk for developing such disorders depends on the intensity, frequency, and duration of the work tasks being performed.

Use checklists to formally screen job features against a list of risk factors. Walk through work facilities and jobsites and conduct an observational survey. Then try to observe workers performing the same job task at the same time to record how different workers might choose different postures and techniques.

No checklist can fit all situations. Checklists will need to be developed for different job tasks or types of work. Lists may be combined later to assess the extent of identified WMSD problems. Checklists reveal signs of individual WMSD problems that may share the same underlying cause.

Use the findings from the checklists and observations of the work environment to brainstorm some initial ergonomic solutions. Sometimes the solution to an WMSD problem is simple and doesn’t warrant a full-blown intervention.

Ergonomics Training

A training program involving ergonomics enables managers, supervisors, and employees to identify the risk factors for work-related musculoskeletal disorders, recognize what their signs and symptoms are, and develop strategies that reduce and prevent WMSDs.

Ergonomics training would be beneficial for all workers who are exposed to conditions that contribute to musculoskeletal disorders. Employees know their own jobs better than anyone else does. Workers must be given the opportunity to discuss problems as they see them.

Management and workers need to understand what ergonomics involves if they are to correctly identify and solve workplace musculoskeletal problems.

Tailor ergonomics training to your particular workers. Consider their basic education level, literacy level, language, and specific job interests. Make any outside instructors aware of your company operations, relevant policies, and practices before training begins—so the training is relevant to the work that is usually done.

The objectives and purpose of ergonomics training for WMSDs should be for workers to:

  • Learn how to recognize the risk factors
  • Learn how to recognize the symptoms
  • Understand general methods for reducing the risk factors
  • Become aware of the company’s health care procedures.

Collect Evidence

Once the signs of a potential WMSD problem have been uncovered and the staff trained, the next step is to determine the scope and characteristics of the problem by collecting health and medical evidence of WMSDs.

It is essential to follow up on workers whose jobs cause undue physical fatigue, stress, or discomfort. If employees report their symptoms early and openly, you can take corrective measures to delay the development of musculoskeletal disorders. In situations where workers with certain tasks report more MSD problems than workers with other tasks, it is best to immediately study the possible risk factors associated with those certain tasks.

Take Action

To implement an ergonomics program, begin by targeting solutions easy to put into effect. Early successes can build confidence and experience for resolving more complex MSD problems.

There are five approaches to control WMSD risk factors. Elimination is the most effective way to reduce MSD risk factors in the workplace. Other controls also include substitution, engineering controls, administrative controls, and personal protective equipment.

In ergonomics, engineering controls (isolating the hazard) lead to substitution (replacing the hazard) or elimination (removing the hazard). Personal protective equipment and administrative controls are not as likely to reduce or eliminate WMSDs.

Engineering controls are the most effective at reducing WMSD hazards but may also be the most difficult to implement for an established work process. Changing the way employees use materials, parts, products, and tools can relieve workers from WMSD risks. Engineering controls include mechanical assist devices, fixtures, and lighter-weight packaging materials.

Administrative controls are practices and policies that workers must follow until engineering controls become feasible. Exposure to a particular hazard can be reduced or limited by reducing the length of workers’ shifts, establishing a job rotation, scheduling more breaks, varying the tasks for individual jobs, or training employees on how to minimize exposure to a hazard, such as stepping and turning instead of twisting while doing manual handling.

Personal protective equipment such as kneepads and antivibration gloves and grip-gloves may protect workers from immediate hazards. PPE is inexpensive and used frequently where hazards don’t need to wait on administrative or engineering controls.

Workers’ compensation carrier companies, consultants, and vendors are available to help employers come up with the right ergonomic intervention for the WMSD problem. Once you have a good idea, the proposed intervention needs to be tested to determine if it will solve the problem.

Evaluating the Program

Employers should follow up on interventions to ensure the controls applied reduce or eliminate the WMSD risk factors. Also, they should ensure that no new WMSD risk factors were created.

Since workers may be sore from doing their jobs differently and using new muscle groups, check with workers after one week and again after one month after putting in a new work practice.

Adjusting to work is also important for new and return-to-work employees, particularly for tasks that are highly repetitive. New employees need about two weeks to condition their muscles. During the adjustment period, it is not unusual for new hires or employees returning from a long absence to report muscle soreness.

A variety of techniques can be used to measure the effectiveness and benefits of the ergonomics program. The following data can be compared before and after the intervention:

  • Job analyses
  • Checklists
  • Symptom surveys
  • OSHA form 300 logs
  • Employee absentee rates
  • Turnover rates
  • Workers’ compensation costs
  • Quality of products and services
  • Savings.

Remember that workers will not experience the benefits of your ergonomics program immediately. It can take months for old musculoskeletal disorder symptoms to disappear, and you will need to modify your intervention if new MSD symptoms begin appearing.

Commitment and Involvement

Occupational safety and health research shows that management’s commitment is crucial to the success of musculoskeletal health awareness training and WMSD interventions. Management is responsible for encouraging worker input on real or suspected job hazards, ways to control these hazards, and how best to effect interventions.

Ergonomics programs typically require input from a wide array of people: worker and management representatives, safety personnel, health care providers, ergonomics specialists, human resources, maintenance, engineering, and purchasing.

All these groups should conduct job analyses, identify hazards, review injury records and symptoms surveys, develop control measures, and install new equipment specifically for ergonomics programs.

Workers involved in ergonomics programs are trained to recognize physical risk factors and should report potential hazards, changes in workplace conditions, and submit suggestions for improvements.

When workers actively participate in ergonomics programs, they are more motivated, have higher job satisfaction, are better at problem solving, are less resistant to changes in the workplace, and are more knowledgeable about their work and about the company they work for.

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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.