Posted on: June 20, 2024

What Is Workplace Ergonomics?

What is Workplace Ergonomics

Workplace ergonomics is a concept that has garnered increasing attention over the years as more and more organizations recognize the importance of designing workspaces that promote health, safety, and productivity. 

Although ergonomics is often associated with desk and computer setups, its application in the workplace extends far beyond, helping to prevent serious injuries in sectors such as construction, manufacturing, and materials handling, among others.

In this blog, we’ll delve into the fundamentals of workplace ergonomics and why it matters.

WHAT IS AN ERGONOMICS HAZARD?

An ergonomics hazard refers to any workplace condition that poses a risk of causing musculoskeletal injury or disorder due to the nature of the physical work involved. 

These hazards stem from work conditions that do not match the physical capabilities of the worker, leading to potential harm. Ergonomic hazards can arise from various factors, including but not limited to:

  • Repetitive motions that cause strain over time (e.g., typing or assembly line work).
  • Inadequate workstation design that forces awkward postures or excessive reaching.
  • Prolonged sitting or standing without the opportunity for movement or posture change.
  • Heavy lifting or the manual handling of materials that can stress the musculoskeletal system.
  • Excessive force requirements to perform tasks, such as pushing or pulling heavy loads.
  • Vibration exposure from hand-held tools, which can lead to nerve damage or circulatory disorders.
  • Poor lighting that leads to eye strain or awkward postures as workers try to see their work better.

WHAT ARE ERGONOMICS AND ERGODYNAMICS?

Ergonomics focuses on understanding the interaction between individuals and their work settings, especially in relation to the tools and equipment they utilize. Its objective is to tailor these tools and environments to fit the user's physical needs and comfort, aiming to reduce strain and discomfort while enhancing productivity. 

Recently, the concept of "ergodynamics" has emerged, highlighting the application of ergonomic principles in dynamic work environments. 

Though these areas of study might seem specialized, they are crucial for ensuring the health and safety of workers across various sectors. This is because ergonomic interventions are key to preventing or reducing musculoskeletal disorders

WHAT IS A MUSCULOSKELETAL DISORDER?

A musculoskeletal disorder, commonly referred to as an MSD, impacts the body's: 

  • Muscles 
  • Ligaments 
  • Tendons 
  • Cartilage 
  • Spinal discs 
  • Associated nerves or blood vessels 

Common symptoms include: 

  • Persistent pain 
  • Stiffness in joints 
  • Sharp pains 
  • Inflammation 
  • Chronic aches 
  • Reduced strength 

These disorders are most often observed in the back, neck, and shoulders.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) defines a condition as a musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) only if it results from overexertion, repetitive movements, or specific postures. Therefore, under workplace injury criteria, an injury sustained from a slip and fall would not be classified as an MSD, even if it involves a musculoskeletal injury. 

Examples of some specific MSDs include: 

  • Pinched nerves 
  • Sprains/strains/tears 
  • Herniated discs 
  • Meniscus tears 
  • Hernias 
  • Carpal/tarsal tunnel syndrome 

WHAT PUTS YOU AT RISK FOR MUSCULOSKELETAL DISORDERS?

According to OSHA, risk factors for MSDs (sometimes referred to as ergonomic injuries) include:

  • Excessive exertion: Lifting heavy objects, pushing or pulling heavy loads, manually pouring materials, or maintaining control of heavy equipment and tools.
  • Performing repetitive tasks: The same or similar motion or series of motions, continually or frequently, for an extended time.
  • Working in awkward postures or the same posture for long periods: Including prolonged or repetitive reaching above shoulder height, kneeling, squatting, leaning over a counter, using tools with bent wrists, or twisting the torso while lifting.
  • Localized pressure on a body part: Pressing the body or hand against hard or sharp edges or using the hand as a hammer.
  • Cold temperatures: When they happen in combination with any other risk factor, increase the potential for MSDs to develop.
  • Vibration of either the whole body or hand-arm: Vibration greatly increases the force that has to be exerted for a task, and hand-arm vibration damages small capillaries. 
  • Any combination of the above 

Moreover, the likelihood of encountering a musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) grows as one ages, yet individuals of any age can be affected if exposed to adverse ergonomic conditions. 

WHY DO ERGONOMICS IN THE WORKPLACE MATTER?

Ergonomic injuries not only lead to personal distress but also incur significant expenses for employers. A study from 2001 highlighted that musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) resulted in more days away from work than any other type of nonfatal injury or illness. In 1999, nearly one million individuals needed time off work to address and recuperate from MSDs related to their jobs.

Annually, MSDs are responsible for approximately 130 million healthcare visits, including outpatient services, hospital admissions, and emergency room consultations. 

Moreover, the Institute of Medicine has estimated the annual costs associated with work-related MSDs, including compensation, lost wages, and decreased productivity, to be between $45 and $54 billion. 

These issues are of particular concern in the manufacturing and services industries, which combined account for half of all reported MSD cases.

CAN ERGONOMICS BE A COMPLIANCE ISSUE?

Currently, there is no explicit ergonomic standard or training mandate from OSHA at the federal level. However, this absence does not exempt employers from their responsibilities. Under OSHA, all employers are required to protect their employees from known risks that could result in death or serious injury, which include ergonomic risks. 

OSHA retains the authority to issue citations for ergonomic hazards through the General Duty Clause. This clause obligates employers to protect employees from severe and recognized dangers in the workplace, even in the absence of a specific regulatory standard. 

Employers reporting high incidences of injuries potentially linked to ergonomic concerns may receive hazard alert letters from OSHA.

Moreover, OSHA has indicated that employers actively making sincere efforts to mitigate ergonomic hazards will not be the primary targets of enforcement actions. This emphasizes the importance of proactive measures in addressing ergonomic issues within the workplace. 

WHAT IS THE COST OF IGNORING ERGONOMICS?

The 2021 Workplace Safety Index by Liberty Mutual disclosed that the ten most disabling injuries related to work cost U.S. businesses more than $1 billion each week. Among these, three injuries stem from manual material handling tasks. These are:

  • Moving heavy objects, which incurs costs of $13.3 billion annually.
  • Engaging in activities requiring poor postures, like reaching or stretching, leading to $4.71 billion in expenses each year.
  • Performing repetitive tasks, particularly those involving intensive use of hands and shoulders, costing $1.66 billion annually.

These figures represent only the direct costs associated with workplace injuries, such as workers' compensation, medical bills, and legal expenses. 

They do not account for indirect costs, which include training replacement workers, lost productivity, additional overtime wages, work stoppages, and administrative efforts to address these problems. Indirect expenses resulting from a workplace injury can exceed the direct costs by up to five times.   

ERGONOMICS IN THE CONSTRUCTION INDUSTRY 

Construction work involves frequent heavy lifting, repetitive movements, awkward postures, exposure to all types of weather conditions, and vibrations from using hand-held or operated power tools and heavy machinery such as bulldozers. 

Therefore, it's unsurprising that musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are a leading cause of nonfatal injuries and days absent from work (DAFW) in the construction sector. 

In fact, almost 46% of construction workers report experiencing symptoms related to MSDs, and more than 27% of those aged 55 and above have reported ergonomic injuries that restrict their ability to work. 

This statistic does not include construction workers who retire early or switch professions due to severe limitations brought on by these conditions as they age. 

Frequently recommended strategies for preventing or mitigating ergonomic injuries among construction workers involve: 

  • Changing the way materials are transported/minimizing manual handling of heavy materials by using mechanical equipment and making sure materials are delivered and stored close to where they'll be used.
  • Storing materials to avoid lifting from the ground or above shoulder height, whenever possible.
  • Requiring loads above a certain weight to be handled with cooperative lifting.
  • Keeping walkways clear so that carts and dollies can be used to move materials.
  • Using ergonomic tools that are lighter weight, require less force, and/or fit the hand better.
  • Reducing contact stress with knee pads and shoulder pads for kneeling or carrying materials.
  • Rotating workers through jobs that require repetitive motion or create vibration stress.
  • Train supervisors to monitor workers for MSD warning signs, like shaking their arms and hands, rolling their shoulders, bringing back or wrist braces to work, or modifying their equipment.
  • Encourage early reporting of MSD symptoms – this facilitates early diagnosis and intervention, lower worker's compensation claims and DAFW, and the identification of work areas that are causing ergonomic injury.
  • Provide training on ergonomic principles so that workers understand the risks of ergonomic hazards and measures they can take to reduce or eliminate ergonomic injuries. 

These suggestions serve merely as an initial step toward enhancing ergonomic safety at construction sites. 

OSHA offers various resources, including both general and construction-specific guidance on making ergonomic enhancements and managing ergonomic risks. Similarly, the Laborer's Health and Safety Fund of North America also provides valuable information on this area.

OSHA-AUTHORIZED ONLINE TRAINING 

At OSHA.com, an OSHA-authorized provider, we offer online Construction Ergonomics in the Workplace training to help you stay compliant and safe. Our courses are 100% online, self-paced, and mobile-friendly to suit a constantly moving workforce. 

Looking to train your entire crew? Ask us about our business solutions to get bulk discounts, a free eLearning delivery and tracking platform (LMS), and dedicated support.