Ergonomics is the science of fitting job tasks, equipment, tools, and the work environment to workers’ needs. By creating a more ergonomic work environment, businesses can not only reduce the chances that an employee will be injured on the job, but they can also improve employee productivity and morale.
Why wait until you have a major workers’ compensation claim on your hands before implementing an ergonomics program? Work-related injuries and illnesses cost employers billions of dollars each year. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA, 2003) estimates that as many as one-third of these claims are linked to musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs)—such as carpal tunnel syndrome—caused by repetitive stress or sustained physical exertion. MSDs are known collectively as cumulative trauma disorders (CTDs). In addition to leading to expensive workers’ compensation claims, employee injuries can result in higher rates of absenteeism and turnover among all staff members, not just those directly affected.
A less obvious problem, but equally important to the success of your business, is the question of worker comfort. Employees who are, for example, seated in uncomfortable chairs, squinting through the glare on their computer screens, or shivering from the cold can continue to work, but they may need more breaks and may accomplish less than employees whose workspaces are more comfortable. Clearly, employees whose jobs feel unnecessarily stressful due to poor working conditions are more likely to underperform at work, or even look for positions elsewhere.
To start tackling ergonomic concerns, appoint a committee representing management, as well as relevant departments such as human resources, engineering, and health and safety. Be sure to include employees from various work areas, especially those who perform repetitive or hazardous tasks. One of the committee’s main tasks should be to draft a policy outlining the program’s objectives. They should also require progress reports for ergonomics projects and review them once the projects are underway.
Identifying potential hazards and sources of pain or discomfort is not difficult. Records of injuries, accidents, absenteeism, and workers compensation claims can shed light on problem areas. Also, solicit input from employees¾a lot can be learned from workers’ complaints. Another approach is simply to observe employees at work. Many workplace conditions that lead to musculoskeletal disorders are easily spotted. For instance, check that workstations have proper height, depth, and clearances. In addition, note jobs that involve repetitive operations, or require excessive force or awkward body positions.
Teach employees to recognize the early signs and symptoms of cumulative trauma disorders. Train them to be aware of ergonomic principles and to follow safe work procedures. Review workstation setups and, if necessary, redesign them with safer, more comfortable equipment to reduce the amount of physical strain they cause. Allow workers who perform repetitive tasks to rotate duties or take periodic breaks. Encouraging employees to take walks or workout during lunch or coffee breaks can also help to alleviate the physical and mental stress that builds up in the course of the day.
If you witness signs of hazardous conditions, or receive employee complaints, obtain medical assistance immediately. Untreated symptoms may progress to more serious conditions. The sooner a problem is detected, the better it can be managed.
Sometimes, worker injuries and complaints can persist even after you have made an effort to correct the problems. In this case, consider asking an ergonomics consultant to come into your workplace and recommend solutions to any unresolved issues.
Implementing a program of sound ergonomic practices before problems occur can save thousands of dollars in workplace-related disorders and workers’ compensation premiums. Paying attention to ergonomics can also improve productivity and loyalty among your staff, as they come to appreciate their employer’s commitment to their health and well-being.