Sit up straight and adjust your seat height. Place your feet flat on the floor or use a footstool. Make sure your monitor is at the proper eye level.
These are common ergonomic phrases heard in offices.
Ergonomics is the science of examining how jobs, equipment and workplaces can be better designed to fit workers, ensure their health and safety and promote efficiency and productivity, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The field focuses on identifying causes of injury, reducing the risk of developing musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), reducing muscle fatigue, rehabilitating work-related injuries and increasing productivity, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Ergonomists work on fitting a job to a person, according to OSHA. Just like investing in health and wellness programs or premium insurance plans, ergonomics benefits employees. However, these benefits are not always prioritized.
“They tend to be the first things that are cut,” said Jeremy Verrillo, vice president and CEO of Comprehensive Injury Prevention (CIP) Solutions. His company focuses on clinical health and wellness coaching (including counsel from dietitians), injury prevention training, injury triage, job reintegration, occupational health and safety, office ergonomics, rehabilitation of injuries and medical conditions and therapeutic intervention.
As it turns out, this is not the best time to be doing away with these programs. Early in the pandemic, electrical contractors were out of work and current new employees have been out of physical education or sports for two or more years, he said.
“We’ve been calling COVID the great reset,” he said. “It’s taken a physical toll, really decreased our conditioning across the board. There may be an unmeasured aging effect just with all the stress we went through. We haven’t [gotten] back to normal yet with our health and wellness.”
A higher-risk industry
“The biggest thing for electrical contractors is understanding that you only get one body,” Verrillo said. “You don’t get to trade it in for a younger model at retirement.”
Electrical energy is the fifth leading cause of work-related death in the country, according to “OSHA Electrical Safety.”
Workplace hazards resulted in nearly 5,000 deaths annually in the United States in 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). About 1,000 of these deaths were the result of electrical injuries, according to “Electrical Injuries” from the National Center for Biotechnology Information. Direct exposure to electricity is the leading cause (50%) of work-related deaths, followed by falls (28%) and contact with objects (19%), according to OSHA reports on fatal cases, cited in “Trends in Catastrophic Occupational Incidents among Electrical Contractors, 2007–2013.”
While the number of injuries and fatalities in some trades has been decreasing, fatal injuries among ECs increased between 2011 and 2016, according to the BLS’ Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries.
Workers in certain industries and occupations—such as athletes, ECs, firefighters, flight attendants, freight movers, housekeepers, HVAC installers, maintenance workers, nurses, office workers, telecommunications line installers and others—are exposed to known risk factors for injuries and MSDs. These risk factors include “lifting heavy items, bending, reaching overhead, pushing and pulling heavy loads, working in awkward body postures and performing the same or similar tasks repetitively,” according to OSHA’s website.
ECs face additional risk factors due to the nature of the job, such as exposure to harmful substances and environments; risk of slips, trips and falls; contact with objects and equipment; working around and with high voltage; and being in the line of fire. The “line of fire” refers to being in harm’s way, such as when the path of a moving object and a person’s body intersect, when pulling tools or equipment towards oneself or when walking under employees who are working above, according to NECA’s National Electrical Installation Standards.
Dangerous by design
Universal design is not really universal. Human bodies come in a range of abilities, ages, genders, races, sizes and weights. But crash test dummies, for example, are based on the “average” male—white, 150 pounds, 25 to 30 years old and able-bodied, according to an article in British newspaper The Guardian. The United States didn’t start using female crash-test dummies until 2011, putting women at risk of injury or death, since seat belts, seats, wheels, airbags and more are designed according to that “average” male.
The same restrictive design principles apply to the EC industry.
“[Things are] going to [be] designed to the normative, but not everyone falls within those normative charts,” Verrillo said. “There’s no reason things can’t adapt to you. Take the time to work with a professional to understand what fits [you] when [you’re] outside of that bell curve of the normative charts.”
The very design of job sites must be considered, he said.
“We’re in the second centennial of power distribution and we’re still putting power in overhead, off the ground and underground,” he said. “Should we be doing that anymore? I think the next step is how do we make this safer for our workers, from a design standpoint?”
he suggested that designers, project managers and others consider how to improve or redesign the job site, tools, processes and more.
“How can the job site be set up to keep ECs from bending over in awkward positions or lifting heavy objects?” he said. “How old are our systems, how much has changed around them, have they kept up?”
While CIP’s background is athletic training and sports medicine, it has been expanding to field ergonomics, which involves visiting job sites, performing behavior-based reviews of a job’s biomechanics and providing feedback on how to mitigate risky behavior. CIP offers this information mostly to distribution providers for now, but also to ECs themselves.
Ergonomic principles are the same whether working with athletes or ECs, according to Verrillo.
“It’s just trying to find out how [they] apply to your unique situation,” he said. “How do you make that accommodation for you?”
He likes to call electrical workers workplace athletes and encourages them to invest in themselves.
“The body doesn’t know whether you’re running down a field getting millions of dollars or reaching out to a power line to make sure millions of customers stay connected,” he said. “The NFL calls it fancy words, like kinesiology, but it’s the same principle: it’s ergonomics. If you’re not conditioned well enough, it’s going to fail in either instance.”
CIP offers training and conditioning programs for new hires, and is working on maintenance programs for current employees. During distribution companies’ hire days, CIP’s trainers hold fitness and movement screenings and provide feedback.
“Show respect to yourself. If you’re drinking a 12-pack every night, if you’re sedentary, if you’re not conditioning your body, you’re more likely to be injured. Make sure you have the underlying physical fitness and conditioning to make sure you don’t get an injury,” Verrillo said. “You need the physical capacity to operate a power tool; make sure you’re well-oiled and maintained. This doesn’t mean you need to run a marathon every day or be a power lifter, just something to stay healthy.”
Home and away
And it’s not just at the workplace—workers can follow safety procedures and implement ergonomic frameworks at home while lifting heavy loads, using tools, washing the dishes or unloading the dishwasher.
Investing in gear, PPE and uniforms is also important. Verrillo encouraged ECs to submit work orders when a tool is broken or something needs to be fixed or replaced. For example, “Boots have a limited lifespan,” Verrillo said. “ECs don’t always replace their boots when needed. The treads are so worn down.”
Having a forward-looking mindset also helps.
“That mentality of ‘The job is what it is, it just has to get done,’ is deciding that my health and safety is not as important as getting this job done,” Verrillo said. “When I say that [in presentations], people will say ‘No job is ahead of safety,’ but there are some serious things that can happen with energy, including death.”
If an EC does get injured, they need a guided return to the job site.
“Say you were out of work for a while, physical therapy can give a good foundation to train you up,” Verrillo said. “But we give a guided return to pace yourself, make sure you’re comfortable returning to work, so you’re not lifting a 90-pound piece of equipment on your first day back and injuring yourself again.”
Early recognition of discomfort or musculoskeletal injury is key.
“Don’t let things go,” he said. “Reporting the injury and getting medical attention as soon as possible will promote healing.”