By Barbara Semeniuk, 2021
A vital part of a safe workplace is developing and executing an Ergonomics Program for employees. The benefits derived from a good plan are long-lasting, cost-effective, and rewarding. Your employees may be suffering from musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).
What are musculoskeletal disorders?
MSDs are disorders of muscles, tendons, joints that are caused by sudden or sustained physical exertion. Examples of these include enduring an awkward posture, high force, and long duration or high-frequency activities. Moreover, enduring sustained cold temperature, carrying, pushing, or pulling heavy objects, withstanding vibration from machinery and tools, and impact stress or soft tissue compression are all examples of risk factors leading to MSDs.
Why should a company care about MSDs?
MSDs are costly for a company in many different ways. For example, employees suffering from them have high rates of absenteeism, need time off for injuries, and often suffer from lower morale. Financially, MSDs cost a company higher worker compensation premiums, in addition to lost productivity. Having a well-designed Ergonomics Program allows an employer to detect and address MSDs so you can avoid further losses in productivity, quality, and profit.
How to design a successful Ergonomics Program
Companies and their leadership must understand work processes, including job tasks, equipment, and workplace layouts, in order to design an optimal workplace strategy. For example, you may need to consider whether certain tasks are better completed by people or if they should be automated.
A key result in a successful Ergonomics Program for any company is reducing the incidence of musculoskeletal disorders. The end goal should be eliminating unnecessary strain or stress on workers when using tools or materials. In addition, you should review things like job methods and workstation layouts as almost every job category could have a potential need for ergonomic assessment. Being proactive helps management and workers identify, measure, anticipate, and prevent potential MSD problems.
These exposures are quantifiable and measurable. Therefore, if the correct tools are used, a company can create a risk analysis to know where to improve ergonomics and thereby address the root causes of the exposure. Later on, these can be fine-tuned to meet the responsibilities of an employer to provide a safe workplace.
7 Ways to prevent MSDs
1. Identify risk factors. Review medical records to find incidence rates and prevalence rates. Evaluate mental, emotional, and physical stress. Take into account the physiological factors such as age and fatigue when doing the task.
2. Involve and Train Management and Workers. Allow all workers to discuss their jobs and problems they see within them. Collect both data and ideas for improvement from employees. Tailor your training to include as much feedback as possible.
3. Collect Health and Medical Evidence. Implement screenings, surveys, and job analyses to help you see patterns or potential for MSDs. You may also consider providing medical exams to learn more about the extent of the problem.
4. Implement Your Ergonomic Program. Your main goal is to eliminate hazards. If that can’t be done, attempt to replace the risk with an improved process. If early intervention isn’t possible, and you can’t change the way people work, find a way to remove them from the hazard. If that is not an option, issue PPE or personal protective equipment, as necessary.
Changing the way you use materials, equipment, tools, or products can be effective. As can scheduling more breaks, rotations between jobs, better employee training, mechanical assistance, and automation.
5. Evaluate Your Ergonomic Program. Follow up to evaluate your changes to see if they are effective and ensure that no new MSD risks were created. Typically there is an adjustment period of a few weeks for workers using a new system. You can use various measurements to gauge how your program is going, such as employee absentee rates, productivity indicators, symptom surveys, workers’ compensation costs, or checklists.
6. Promote Worker Recovery through Health Care Management. The longer a worker stays home with an injury, the lower the chance they will eventually return. Even minor issues can result in disability or long-term unemployment.
7. Maintain Management Commitment and Employee Involvement. Through good communication, you can involve the workforce, increasing awareness of risk factors. Next, encourage cooperation among management and all other staff.
Have a Common Goal
All the stakeholders in the Ergonomics Program should agree on the common goal of reducing or eliminating employee exposure to MSD risks. It is not only injury management and prevention.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), a US federal agency responsible for research and recommendations to prevent work-related injury and illness, defines ergonomics as “the science of fitting workplace conditions and job demands to the capabilities of the working population.” When workers are a better fit for the workplace, you’ll see higher productivity, performance, and worker retention. Ergonomics programs suit a variety of workplace improvement projects, including aspects like lean manufacturing and quality initiatives.
A critical necessity in the success of an effective Ergonomics Program is the engagement of top management. Not only do employees have to buy in, but the leadership team of a company must commit to goals, available resources, improvements, and hold people accountable for results. When leaders are engaged, their effort is key in effecting more engagement among employees and managers.
What Gets Measured, Gets Done
Companies that run effective ergonomics programs have a few things in common. Number one, they focus on the common goals and review them regularly. Just as you track business performance through a variety of metrics, ergonomic performance can be tracked as well. This means monitoring, at minimum, three factors:
1. Reduction of MSD risk factors
2. Risk-based measures and progress monthly
3. Yearly evaluation
A successful Ergonomics Program is an iterative process, taking into account many factors. Having not just a tactical initiative but a long-term commitment will lead to sustainable change.
NIOSH, The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/
Five Critical Elements for Managing an Ergonomics Program, by Winnie Ip, MBA, CPE, Director of Consulting, Humantech, Inc., Ann Arbor, MI and Walt Rostykus, MSPH, CSP, CIH, CPE, Vice President Humantech, Inc., Ann Arbor, MI