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Why Your Company Needs an Ergonomics Program
 

By Paul Giannetti  7/31/2014
 

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are painful injuries affecting muscles, joints, bones and ligaments or other tissues in the limbs or back. Such injuries affect 1.9 million Americans every year, and over one-quarter of these injuries occur in the workplace. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2012, MSDs accounted for 34 percent of all work-related injuries and illnesses, costing employers more than $20 billion in workers’ compensation costs, medical expenses, missed work days, decreased productivity and hiring replacement staff. 

Few businesses are immune to the risk of musculoskeletal disorders arising among employees.  Workers that perform jobs or tasks involving repetitive movements, prolonged immobilization, or muscle overuse, have a heightened risk of developing an MSD.  Bad posture, working in an awkward position, exposure to constant vibration and physical trauma can also cause damage to the musculoskeletal system, resulting in:

  • neck strain
  • eye strain
  • hand and wrist tendonitis
  • shoulder tendonitis or tennis elbow (epicondylitis)
  • carpal tunnel syndrome
  • lower back pain
  • hernia
  • sprains, pains and tears
  • swelling and stiffness

The good news is that employers can be proactive to avoid losing valuable employees and company dollars to these injuries. Implementing a strong ergonomics program can nip MSDs in the bud, improve the health and productivity of employees, and boost the company’s bottom line. 

How to Develop an Effective Ergonomics Program

Ergonomics is the science of designing the job and workplace to fit the worker rather than the other way around.  In other words, ergonomics is about eliminating or minimizing physical stressors and environmental factors that adversely affect worker health and comfort. 

Ideally, ergonomics should be taken into account at the start-up phase of any business. While implementing it may seem more costly at the outset, in the long run, it’s actually more expensive to do without, as lack of an ergonomic plan may result in higher workers’ comp insurance premiums, more missed days at work, and might even require a redesign or retrofit of the workspace. 

No matter whether you’re just starting your business or it has been established for years, here are five key steps to developing a good ergonomics program.

Identify signs of potential musculoskeletal problems in the workplace. Employers or managers should devote significant time to observe the work environment and look for clues indicating that a musculoskeletal problem is on the horizon. In particular, an employer should look for tasks that require workers to:

  • Repeatedly lift, carry or push heavy or bulky items.
  • Use vibrating equipment.
  • Sit or stand in one position for extended periods of time.
  • Type for long periods of time.
  • Use excessive force repeatedly.
  • Position themselves awkwardly to do their job.
  • Engage in any repetitive motion for a prolonged period of time.

As part of this assessment, employers should speak with employees about their health and comfort both during and after performing their job, taking note of any aches, pains, discomfort or localized fatigue that may be related to the job. Employers should also review illness logs for signs of MSDs and generally remain attuned to employee health-related complaints. 

Implement effective controls for high-risk jobs and tasks. Once the risk factors for MSDs are identified, employers should take action to eliminate potential problems. For employees who often remain in the same position, this may be as simple as scheduling regular, mandatory breaks, investing in a quality ergonomically designed chair or cushion, teaching exercises to help keep the blood flowing and the muscles supple. In other cases, you may need to change the work equipment or workstation layout to lessen pain or potential problems. An ergonomic keyboard, for example, may diminish the risks imposed by extensive typing. On a construction site, using “stand-up” tools (such as a stand-up screw gun or motorized screed) to prevent repeatedly bending over can be crucial. Job rotation or team work may be the solution to jobs or tasks that require maintaining an awkward position for extended periods.  

Educate and train employees on avoiding musculoskeletal disorders. Employees must be made aware of tasks, positions and circumstances that increase the risk of developing an MSD and learn how to avoid these hazardous conditions. Regular training programs can help draw attention to the problem and educate workers. Workers that lift and carry must be taught the proper way to bend and lift without straining the back or arms. Desk workers or those required to stand must learn how to improve their posture. All workers should learn exercises that reduce pain, aches and fatigue in the limbs, back, neck and extremities and be encouraged to take regular breaks. Training should be supplemented by pamphlets and posters with instructions and reminders on how to decrease the risk of musculoskeletal injury. Employees should also be encouraged to offer suggestions on how to improve the ergonomics of the workplace and identify other sources of potential MSD problems.

Never let your guard down. An ergonomics program should be in continual development.  Whenever a new job, workspace or process is added, employers and managers should take ergonomics into account before implementing it. With respect to existing jobs and space, ergonomics should be revisited regularly. Managers should keep abreast of innovative trends and equipment that may be applicable to their workplace. 

Demonstrate commitment. Employees tend to take policies seriously if management does too.  Management should appoint leaders to help implement ergonomic controls or changes, and set identifiable goals (e.g., ensuring that 80 percent of all workstations are ergonomic within a certain period of time, reducing the number of MSD-related complaints in a number of months).  Employers and manager should also not skimp on the resources devoted to improving workplace ergonomics and themselves follow the health and safety rules that the company has set in place.  When employees truly feel that health and safety of workers are a priority for the company, the repercussions can be felt all the way to your bottom line. 

Paul Giannetti is a personal injury attorney in Albany, N.Y., with over 20 years of legal experience.

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