What is ergonomics? It’s the science of matching
the right tool and task to the person doing the work – rather
than forcing the person to fit the job.
Workers who, for many years, use tools that
are ergonomically unsound become injury prone and may develop
disorders that can shorten their careers. Most of the injuries
that result from poor ergonomic design fall into a category called
cumulative trauma disorders (CTDs), such as the commonly known
tennis or carpenter’s elbow. Many of these CTDs result from the
constant repetition of a specific task and, over time, repetitive
strain injuries (RSIs) can result.
Each year, workers file more than 330,000
claims associated with CTDs or physical damage built up over time.
This problem translates into more than $27 billion a year in medical
treatment and lost income.
Workplace ergonomics involves a relationship
between four elements – physical factors, environmental conditions,
job design and the tools used to perform the task. The following
tips will help you to evaluate each of these variables and reduce
the risk of nontool-related injuries.
The general health and fitness of your workers
affect their bodies’ abilities to bounce back from task-related
strains. Additionally, bodies heal slower as they age.
While CTDs can strike at any age, employees
who take appropriate care of themselves when they’re in their
20s and 30s will find that their 50s and 60s are a lot less painful.
Workers should pay attention to their bodies.
If they’re tired or sore in a particular area as they work, they
should examine how they can adjust the task or tool to reduce
strain before the problem gets worse.
Environmental factors include worksite temperature
and lighting. Cold conditions can increase risks and aggravate
pre-existing CTDs, so if employees must work in the cold, they
need to dress for it. On the other hand, working in a hot, humid
or stuffy environment can cause fatigue, which can cause safety
problems, as well as accelerate stress disorders. In the heat,
employees should keep their fluid levels up, use a portable fan
in appropriate locations and be aware of their fatigue level.
Lighting also plays a role. A poorly lit work
environment can affect posture, cause eyestrain and lead indirectly
to a number of injuries. Any task is a lot less safe when visibility
is low, so workers should illuminate their work properly – from
techs using portable light sources to illuminate vehicles being
repaired to proper ceiling lights for your office staff.
Cumulative trauma injuries result from repeating
a task that causes unnoticeable damage when done once – but can
be serious when repeated thousands of times. It’s sometimes difficult,
however, to tell which actions can be injurious until it’s too
late. To help, research done by the National Safety Council and
OSHA has uncovered ways workers can redesign tasks to reduce their
risk of these injuries.
The key is to avoid strain wherever possible
by working smarter, not harder. Employees should think about the
task before they jump in and start working, and the place to start
is by paying attention to the tasks they perform most often.
If employees perform most of their work at
a single location, that location should fit them – they shouldn’t
try to make themselves fit an awkward work situation. Work height
affects posture while working, and poor posture is a leading cause
of CTD injuries, especially back problems. Therefore, different
work heights are appropriate for different kinds of work.
Do employees work while sitting or standing?
If they work while seated, adjustable chairs or stools allow them
to change their position from time to time, to fit the particular
task at hand. It also makes it possible for people of different
heights to work at the same location.
If employees work standing, the floor surface
has an ergonomic impact. Poor traction can cause strain simply
from the effort of staying on their feet, and standing or walking
on a hard floor all day can literally have an impact on feet,
ankles, knees and backs. A cushioned work mat and properly cushioned
shoes can help solve this problem.
When lifting or carrying, employees should
use their legs, which have the strongest lifting muscles, not
their backs, which can be easily damaged and heal slowly. If an
object is too heavy to carry comfortably, employees should enlist
the help of someone else or use a dolly.
If employees need to carry a lot of tools,
they should use two smaller toolboxes or a rolling tool chest
rather than using one large toolbox. If their jobs require them
to perform actions repeatedly, they should take short breaks or
switch between different tasks to alter the routine.
Jobs that require using hand tools often require
more muscle force than other tasks, so the results of using the
wrong tools for the job can appear more quickly – and the damage
can be greater. That’s why it’s especially important to choose
the right tools for the job and to use those tools safely and
When choosing a tool, workers should make
sure that it not only performs the job at hand, but that it also
minimizes repetitive strain conditions. For example, examine the
handle of the tool: It should be located close to the tool’s center
of gravity and shouldn’t have sharply angled edges. A bent handle
could allow workers to keep their wrists straighter, and a textured
vibration-dampening grip can also be a good choice for tool handles.
Injuries and illnesses occur when tools aren’t
matched well to a particular job task or person. Baseball players
select bats that match their strength, hitting style and hand
size, and collision repair technicians need to approach their
jobs the same way.
Every job is different, every environment
is different, and each of us is different – yet all these factors
play a role in workplace ergonomics and employee health. By learning
the different factors that contribute to ergonomics and applying
that knowledge, you and your employees can assure yourselves of
longer, healthier and more productive careers.
Writer Sharon Morgan is marketing manager
at Stanley-Proto Industrial Tools, which services the industrial,
construction and automotive markets.