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Workplace Safety

Avoiding Workplace Injuries through Ergonomics

In meeting with businesses statewide, they often ask about strategies to control workers' compensation costs. Working from the premise that the least costly accident is the one that never occurs, there are many proactive techniques that companies should consider. Indeed, many businesses have made a commitment to safety, and have reaped the benefits of their successes through lower premium costs and a happier, healthier work force.

As the technology of today's workplace changes, so do the types of injury that can occur. Reports of cumulative trauma disorders (CTDs), such as carpal tunnel syndrome, are increasingly more common. CTDs can occur in a wide range of occupations and fields, including aerospace, agriculture, automotive, clerical, electronics, fabric cutting, food processing, glassware, health care, manufacturing, postal services, metal forming, plastics molding, and the performing arts.

Understanding CTDs is essential to preventing such injuries in the workplace through ergonomics, the designing of the workplace to adapt to the capabilities of the individual human body. According to the American Industrial Hygiene Association, CTDs are a family of muscle, tendon and nerve disorders that are caused, accelerated, or aggravated by repeated movements of the body, particularly when awkward postures, high forces, contact stresses, vibration or cold are also present. The condition manifests itself by elevating fluid pressure around the nerves, which causes pain and nerve damage.

There are three main components to creating an "ergonomically correct" workplace:

  • A comprehensive examination of all work tasks to determine which involve repetitive motion or physical stress.
  • Modifications of the job to fit the employee.
  • Follow through with regular training. Establish a joint labor/management committee to train and update other employees on ergonomic devices and accommodations. This step is the key to long-term implementation of any safety program.

The primary factor in CTDs is the repetitive or cumulative movement of body parts. Recognizing this makes it easy to isolate jobs or tasks that may cause CDTs, and take preventive steps to protect employees from future injuries. A general rule of thumb is to consider the motion itself. After 45 minutes at one task, an employee should change to another task for five to 15 minutes. For example, a data entry operator or typist should file and answer phones for short periods. Assembly line tasks should be rotated, so the employee is not performing the same motion all day.

The second factor in CTDs is the position of the body while doing the work. Sitting, standing, lifting and bending are everyday activities which can place an enormous amount of stress on the body if done for too long, or improperly. One large manufacturing plant in Buffalo uses a "standing seat," which relieves pressure on the back - an important accommodation for those assembly line employees who must stand. In this case, the original adaptation had been made for a worker who was returning to work after an injury. The company's labor-management committee recommended that the plant be outfitted with the seat for all assembly line employees as a preventative measure. Other businesses have created adaptive workstations to fit individual employee's needs, such as elevated work areas for workers of shorter stature. Some companies even require their employees to perform exercises at the beginning of their shifts to help alleviate and reduce the physical tension associated with certain stressful tasks.

Avoiding CTD injuries, which may persist for a long time, is one of the easiest ways to reduce your workers' compensation costs. An ergonomics program can be an inexpensive, effective method of prevention. While there are many ergonomic products on the market, it may just take a little creativity of labor and management to come up with a solution that meets the individual needs of your company.