The biggest concern for any business owner, risk manager or safety director is how to control safety issues and minimize injury risk on the job. The goal is to ensure every worker can go home without injury at the end of each day. Ergonomics are a piece of this equation.
In its simplest form, ergonomics simply means fitting a person to a job. Ergonomic issues encompass repetitive tasks, long hours, fatigue and the strain it places on the worker’s body. Identifying ergonomic concerns related to tools, manual lifting techniques, and other job-related tasks that put strain on specific parts of the body can help prevent common injuries and musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).
When we think of ergonomics, the memory fresh in our minds may be the passing of and then repeal of federal guidelines on ergonomics by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) back in the 1990s. OSHA identified back injuries and carpal tunnel syndrome as preventable injuries that resulted from doing similar and repetitive tasks or performing incorrect procedures while lifting objects. By controlling the way workers perform these types of actions and encouraging the use of mechanical equipment to lift or position work to a comfortable level, the strain on the body is minimized and even removed, thus preventing many of the soft tissue injuries that can result.
Who is affected?
Everyone risks exposure to ergonomic-related hazards. Lifting material, carrying packages, repetitive tasks, posture while driving a vehicle, and posture while sitting at a desk are just some of the scenarios that can contribute to pain and discomfort. There are many more.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) states on www.bls.gov that MSDs “include cases where the nature of the injury or illness is pinched nerve; herniated disc; meniscus tear; sprains, strains, tears; hernia (traumatic and nontraumatic); pain, swelling, and numbness; carpal or tarsal tunnel syndrome; Raynaud syndrome or phenomenon; musculoskeletal system and connective tissue diseases and disorders, when the event or exposure leading to the injury or illness is overexertion and bodily reaction, unspecified; overexertion involving outside sources; repetitive motion involving microtasks; other and multiple exertions or bodily reactions; and rubbed, abraded, or jarred by vibration.”
MSDs are reported to be a leading cause of days away from work and restricted duty for workers. Using ergonomics can help to mitigate and prevent these injuries. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that as many as 13 million people have accumulated over 85 million lost work days because of back-related injuries.
What contributes to MSDs?
In construction—specifically, electrical construction—the potential for incidents related to MSDs comes from pushing equipment such as wheelbarrows or dollies, manually pulling wire, and drilling overhead or in an unnatural position. They can result from using a screwdriver to install cover screws or other tasks such as twisting wire connectors on conductor splices. Individuals lifting wire reels heavier than 35 pounds by themselves may be at risk of suffering an MSD.
MSDs may occur because of the worker’s lack of preparation and stretching. Medical science has shown that proper exercise and stretching can prepare the body for strenuous activities. Many MSD-related injuries occur early in the morning or immediately after lunch when the body and muscles are not prepared for the activity at hand. Another reason these injuries occur may be the weight of an object is more than anticipated. The worker then has to struggle and overcompensate to control the load, which can severely strain muscles, cause loss of balance, and result in more serious injuries.
Poor posture also can affect how we perform job tasks. When positioning tools or equipment, it is vital to ensure those items are a comfortable height and distance in relation to the body. Good positioning helps to prevent over-reaching, bending and twisting. The average cost of a worker compensation claim for an improper twisting accident can exceed $15,000.
Why are soft-tissue and back injuries so devastating?
When a soft-tissue or back injury manifests itself, the result can be catastrophic harm to the worker and take weeks, months or even years of rehab to recover. Often, an X-ray may reveal no physical sign of impairment, but the pain can be unbearable to the individual. The National Safety Council (NSC) has estimated that 80 percent of workers have experienced some type of back pain associated with improper lifting.
The BLS has published data for MSDs involving sprains, strains and tears where the incidence rates are as high as 30 per 10,000 full-time workers while other injuries including cuts, lacerations and fractures average around 10 incidents per 10,000 workers. Another staggering statistic is the cost of a carpal tunnel syndrome treatment for a worker. On average, each case involving carpal tunnel can exceed $27,000 in direct cost and may not reflect all of the associated indirect costs.
Working long hours or working six or seven days a week also can contribute to injuries associated with ergonomics. The NSC has released information that working tired resulting from sleep deprivation or strenuous job requirements can simulate issues commonly found while working under the influence of drugs and alcohol. If the body is tired, it may not be able to respond effectively, increasing the chance of overexertion and risk to the worker.
Manufacturers have addressed these conditions for many years. As an example, a drill lock-on button helps prevent “trigger finger” syndrome, and portable tools with comfort grips that provide better handling places less strain on the hand muscles. Many tool and equipment manufacturers are looking even deeper into designs that ease muscle stress. New hand tools are designed to work with the natural body shape and position of the hands. Many power tools and other equipment come with harnesses and counterweights to lessen the strain of lifting, holding and using these tools for extended periods of time.
Preventing long-term and debilitating injuries justifies the investment in ergonomic research. Some tool manufacturers have dedicated significant resources and personnel to studying long-term effects of repetitive motion, strains involved in lifting tools and equipment, and the dexterity of processes such as using hole punch cutters and drilling overhead. (See “Get a Grip” for more.)
On a larger scale, exoskeletons could alleviate total-body wear-and-tear and are currently going through practical trials on many job sites around the country. Individuals who are doing repetitive drilling or grinding operations can wear these exoskeletons to minimize muscle strain on the back and arms from lifting the tools and holding them in an elevated position.
The use of robotic machinery has also played a key role in reducing many MSD-related injuries. Using these machines to lift, weld, assemble, package and palletize helps keep workers from experiencing the potential for ergonomic issues in the workplace.
Prevention through design
The engineering and research communities have even begun looking at ergonomics in the design phases of construction projects. Planning with computer-based programs, such as building information modeling (BIM), can avoid potential ergonomic issues, and sometimes, they can be engineered out of a project. BIM helps visualize access and egress for installing and maintaining equipment, thus aiding engineers in the design of easy access and quick-release devices to reduce repetitive motion requirements.
BIM also helps reveal ways to prefabricate material for installations. Prefabrication grants greater opportunities to work a comfortable level and minimize overreaching or excessive strenuous operation at heights or in difficult-to-reach locations. Other innovations, such as a tool for installing wire connectors on splices, are now available to ECs. This device can be used with a drill/driver to spin the connector on the splice, thus preventing the hand’s repetitive twisting motion when there are numerous wire connectors to install.
Shared responsibilities for safety
Training is key to effectively addressing safety-related issues. ECs invest time, money and other resources to ensure safety is a core value on every job. By identifying processes and best practices when installing electrical material and equipment, workers can learn and apply proper ways to protect themselves. Every worker should prioritize training in the advised methods of lifting, how to appropriately warm up muscles by stretching and recognizing early when a situation may lead to overexertion. By using mechanical equipment to move and lift objects in the workplace, workers are spared the need to risk physical stress or exertion.
With emphasis on safety as a shared responsibility between employers and employees, management and the front-line workers together can implement methods and alternatives to prevent MSDs and other ergonomic-related injuries.