What is proper ergonomics and what are the best implementation strategies for preventing common injuries?
Ergonomics is the study of a human’s interaction with their environment. Employers are responsible for providing a safe workplace for their workers. The number of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) resulting from biomechanical exertion and their associated costs can be substantially reduced by applying ergonomic principles. Ergonomics can be applied to adapt to the worker’s environment or task to the worker can help the worker move naturally rather than overcoming obstacles by adapting their own movements to suit the job. This, in turn, reduces the biomechanical strain on the body.
Most common workplace injuries
In 1997, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) published evidence on work-related MSDs that exposed routine lifting of heavy objects, daily exposure to whole-body vibration, routine overhead work, work with the neck in chronic flexion position, or performing repetitive forceful tasks as the work conditions leading to MSDs (1). Future guidelines have been shaped by this initial report, but many standards do not withstand the evolution of the workplace nor the divert of the workforce.
As the above-mentioned study determined, employees in many industries and occupations can be exposed to hazards at work. Hazards leading to MSDs can arise from risk factors such as pushing and pulling heavy loads that can lead to shoulder and back issues, lifting items which are heavy, bending and twisting, working in awkward body postures and holding the static posture, and carrying out repetitive tasks. If a worker has exposure to these known risk factors, the chance of injury increases.
Musculoskeletal Injuries at work cost the individual, the organization, and society. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2019 US companies lose more than $1 billion per week due to workplace injuries. Overexertion being the number 1 cause being injuries relating to lifting, pushing, pulling, holding, carrying or throwing (2). MSDs can affect anyone at any age and can be anything from a torn muscle, ligament or tendon, a damaged spinal disc, nerve damage, hernia, pain, numbness, swelling or any sprain or strain. MSDs most commonly affect the wrists, shoulders, neck, eyes, and back and, although less common, can also affect specific fingers, elbows and the knees.
Preventing ergonomic injuries
Fitting the task to the human is not always possible owing to environmental limitations, or lack of appropriate technology or equipment. There is also difficulty for an assessor to truly understand and diagnose the task as they lack expertise in the work. The worker understands the task but often has poor awareness of the risks involved. The ideal scenario of engineering out hazards or eliminating them is ultimate but many industries remain reliant on manual workers to have the awareness and ability to do the job in ways that do not risk their musculoskeletal health. Equipping workers with the learning tools and capacity to feel responsible for their own bodies and movement can help bridge the gap between limitations in task design and musculoskeletal safety.
A recent study published in the Journal of Biomechanics notes that real-time feedback in the form of an auditory alert when a hazardous movement is executed elicits a negative reinforcement which promotes a change in movement behavior (3). Results indicated that using real-time feedback is effective in reducing lower back load. This enhancement in task and proprioceptive awareness can also elicit worker feedback and increase the likelihood of leveraging their task expertise to introduce appropriate engineering controls, make substitutions or eliminations.
Minimizing the risk of injury
There is little consensus on the most appropriate interventions for MSDs and we require a balance between tailoring the task to the human and training an individual to the task. Soter provides the holistic solution to assess workplace organization, to evaluate biomechanical risks of tasks, provide insight on organizational risks, and to train the individual with a minimally invasive program.
By gaining real, data-driven and objective insight into the way a worker moves, the biomechanical obstacles they need to strain to overcome can be identified. Identifying this can be relayed to the worker in the form of training to optimize the worker’s technique within their own capability, but also fed back to the organization to identify areas for improvement in the way the task is fit to the worker.
The science of ergonomics plays a large role in explaining injury causation. Ergonomists thrive to understand the demands of work tasks and endeavor to fit the job to the worker by considering how the design of jobs, equipment, and tools may contribute to discomfort, injury, and illness and thus providing an opportunity to prevent injuries before they happen (4).
- Bernard BP, editor. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease control and Prevention, National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. Musculoskeletal disorders and workplace factors: a critical review of epidemiologic evidence for work-related musculoskeletal disorders of the neck, upper extremity, and lower back. July 1997. DHHS (NIOSH) Publication No. 97-141.
- Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. (2019). Workplace Safety Indices by industry: insights and methodology. Retrieved from https://business.libertymutualgroup.com/business-insurance/Documents/Services/DS200.pdf
- Punt, M., Nematimoez, M., Van Dieën, J., Kingma, I., & Punt, M. (2019). Real-time feedback to reduce low-back load in lifting and lowering. Journal of Biomechanics, 109513–109513.
- Stock, S., Nicolakakis, N., VÃczina, N., VÃczina, M., Gilbert, L., Turcot, A., Sultan-TaÃeb, H., Sinden, K., Denis, M., Delga, C. and Beaucage, C. (2017). Are work organization interventions effective in preventing or reducing work-related musculoskeletal disorders? A systematic review of the literature. Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health.