The ergonomic assessment remains a critical part of every safety leader’s toolkit when it comes to creating safe workplaces and preventing work-related injuries like MSDs (musculoskeletal disorders). Ergonomic risk is hidden in all corners of the workplace, from offices and home workstations to manufacturing floors, warehouses, and beyond. Expert-driven ergonomic assessments by certified ergonomists can identify hazards, define risk levels, and create solutions that directly target the specific risks of any workplace.
In the short term, ergonomic evaluations can help identify problem areas that contribute to employee pain levels and general loss of productivity due to environmental or workplace factors. Combined with an analysis of the biomechanics, job tasks, and workstation design, an ergonomic risk assessment can help employees better understand their bodies and how they interact with their work environments and tools, while also helping companies better understand administrative and engineering controls that can be modified for their needs. In the long run, ergonomic evaluations can help employers keep costs low, mitigating the risk of workers’ compensation claims and lost workdays.
An ergonomic assessment can take place at the workstation, department, or facility level depending on the organization’s needs. Whether targeting specific task functions or broader problems embedded in processes or equipment, an ergonomic assessment is the best way to identify the proper controls for improving safety standards and preventing injuries. A good ergonomic evaluation should include workplace observation, employee communication, and predictive analysis to identify future problems. The information derived from an assessment can be used to create a roadmap toward a safer workplace and happier, more engaged employees.
Technology can also be an essential element of ergonomic assessments. Wearables, AI, or even programs that allow safety leaders who are not certified ergonomists to perform ergonomic assessments under the support of an ergonomist can help provide more detail on where the issues reside. Technology is a useful tool, but it doesn’t eliminate the need for a seasoned professional to interpret the data, identify hazards, and implement interventions.
Let’s explore some of the most common ergonomic mistakes or problems that occur in workplaces across the country and discuss how ergonomic risk assessments can help address these issues.
Challenge #1: Musculoskeletal Disorders
MSDs remain one of the costliest problems that ergonomists, employers, and workers face in 2022. As an injury category, MSDs account for more than a third of workplace injuries resulting in missed time, and total costs for MSDs across the nation reach up to $54 billion annually. Common MSDs suffered in the workplace include sprains, strains, tears, back issues, hernias, and other bodily reactions to external forces or interactions with the work environment. MSDs can be caused by a wide range of factors such as overexertion, repeated strain, lifting weights overhead, completing repetitive tasks with short task cycles (less than 30 seconds), and performing strenuous tasks in cramped spaces.
Ergonomic assessments can prevent MSDs and help employers reduce the associated costs by identifying environmental factors that contribute to injury risk. Likewise, an effective ergonomic evaluation should include an analysis of how individual workers perform their job tasks, identifying issues with tools or equipment that might lead to risk. Further, an assessment will identify problems with workers’ behavior—postures, work positions, task techniques—that can generate injury risk. Photo and video analysis, or virtual assessment using videoconferencing software, are excellent tools for identifying MSD risks in employees’ behavior.
Challenge #2: Repetitive stress injuries
Repetitive stress injuries, or RSIs, are a common subset of MSDs that occur when employees’ bodies are strained by quick tasks and motions that are repeated over a short time frame. Common RSIs include Carpal tunnel syndrome, in which inflammation of wrist tendons puts pressure on the median nerve, along with epicondylitis, better known as tennis elbow. Tendinitis is a general category (inflammation of the body’s connective soft tissues) also falls under the RSI banner.
Ergonomic risk assessments can identify tasks and processes that require repetitive motions. It’s important to note that there are healthy, safe ways to accomplish tasks that require repetitive motions, and that these types of injuries occur because employees are performing tasks with poor posture or technique, or because they are using tools that are poorly matched to the worker. A thorough evaluation of workstations and tools will allow safety leaders to replace outdated equipment and provide better training that is more targeted to the specific tasks and risk factors workers are experiencing.
Challenge #3: Fatigue
Safety leaders know that ergonomics, biomechanics, injury risk levels, and employee performance are interrelated factors. Another essential element in that equation is fatigue. Fatigue is not simply a feeling of tiredness, sleepiness, or lack of energy—it’s the direct result of a specific problem: a lack of adequate restful sleep. Fatigue exacerbates virtually all forms of injury risk in the workplace because fatigued workers are impaired in a similar fashion to a drunk driver. Fatigued workers are less able to concentrate on tasks, are more likely to become distracted, and are more likely to suffer an accident. Ergonomic risks increase with fatigue as well, making it more likely for employees to use unsafe task techniques and postures, which can lead to injuries. In terms of employer budgets, fatigue generates some $136 billion in costs per year in lost productivity alone, roughly $1,200 to $3,100 per employee per year.
Ergonomic assessments are uniquely well-positioned to tackle fatigue problems. These risk evaluations are based on uncovering the factors that lead to fatigue, from the worksites where tasks are performed to the HR offices where safety policies are set. Fatigue has just as much to do with task and tool design as it does with scheduling and rostering practices. After an ergonomic assessment has been taken for the workplace, safety leaders can design schedules that limit consecutive shift work and help workers get better and more sleep.
Challenge #4: Chronic Pain
Of all the ergonomic challenges facing employers, chronic pain may be the most prevalent and the most expensive. More than 20% of adults in the United States report experiencing chronic pain, according to the National Health Interview Survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control in 2019. Rates of chronic pain are higher among older workers, which presents employers with another problem since so much of the workforce remains composed of longer-tenured workers. Nationwide, chronic pain costs employers $635 billion per year. Chronic pain contributes to an array of health and wellness problems; it can cause fatigue and workplace accidents and leads to workers using unsafe techniques that can cause injury. It also increases the likelihood of workers using opiate painkillers, which have caused enormous rates of addiction and overdose among the American workforce.
Ergonomic assessments take the bite out of the chronic pain problem by identifying the specific processes, tasks, and environmental factors that cause pain and providing safety leaders with a roadmap for immediate improvement. A data-backed approach that analyzes the worker’s body, behavior, and environment will illuminate risk factors for chronic pain and help employers create robust pain-relief programs and implement other controls for pain levels.
Ergonomic assessments and risk evaluations are essential ingredients in an effective injury prevention program. By isolating risk factors and creating a store of data to describe workplace hazards, an ergonomic risk assessment provides safety leaders with detailed information on the risks in their workplaces.
Contact DORN Companies today for a free consultation to talk about how an ergonomic assessment can benefit your organization. Keep an eye out for the publication of our latest white paper on the changes in ergonomics happening today and over the next few years.