Ergonomics is the science that “addresses human performance and well-being in relation to various types of jobs, equipment, tools and environments.” In other words, it’s the study of the way humans work.
The CDC states that “The goal of ergonomics is to reduce stress and eliminate injuries and disorders associated with the overuse of muscles, bad posture, and repeated tasks. This is accomplished by designing tasks, work spaces, controls, displays, tools, lighting, and equipment to fit the employee´s physical capabilities and limitations.”
Understanding the Problem
According to the US Department of Labor and Statistics, “in 2008 work-related musculoskeletal disorders – like nerve damage from typing and injuries caused by improper lifting – accounted for almost 30 percent of all workers’ compensation claims. That’s 317,440 claims to be exact, with each claim resulting in a median of 10 days out of work for injured parties and costing state fund employers millions of dollars.”
Musculoskeletal disorders are problems occurring in the soft tissue of the body such as muscles, tendons, blood vessels, ligaments and nerves. Common injuries to these tissues caused by lack of or insufficient ergonomics include back pain, chronic soreness, carpel tunnel syndrome, tendinitis and hernias. Injuries to soft tissues often occur not from improper methods or even from accidents but actually from repetitive tasks involving common movements. For example, a job involving typing all or most of the day can eventually result in carpel tunnel syndrome because an individual is doing the same type of movement for a long period of time.
Symptoms of and Treatment for Repetitive Strain
General symptoms of repetitive strain disorders include pain and/or discomfort that fails to recede after a couple of days, swelling, stiffness, tight muscles, inflexibility, numbness, tingling, a feeling of pins and needles and weakness. Ergonomics can help prevent and treat these disorders. Treatment of more advanced cases can include rest, braces, physical therapy and even surgery. But the earlier ergonomics are employed, the less likely these treatments measures will be needed, especially the more invasive ones such as surgery.
Jobs at Highest Risk for Ergonomics Problems
Jobs at highest risk for the repetitive strain injuries that ergonomics can help to prevent and alleviate are ones that have one or more of a variety of risk factors. Those factors include jobs where a worker is subjected to the following:
- High force such as when lifting/carrying or pushing/pulling a heavy load.
- High repetition such as when one does the same type of work for the duration of a day or when one continually uses the same limbs or muscle groups. Examples include pushing a button constantly throughout the day and standing in one place or sitting upright without back support for an extended period time.
- Awkward posture such as when wrists are bent for using a tool, the back is bent forward or twisted, or the neck is bent up, down or to the side.
- Overhead work where arms are held above shoulder height.
- Static work where tools are held steady or an individual must sit for long periods of time.
- Vibration when operating machinery (drill, grinder, etc.) or driving equipment over rough terrain (dump truck drivers for example).
- Contact stress caused when the end of a tool or perhaps a piece of machinery constantly pushes against a part of the body. (Examples include using a screwdriver for long periods of time.)
- Constant exposure to cold such as foodservice workers who handle frozen food or working in a cold environment such as construction workers who work outside in winter.
Repetitive strain injury is a significant workplace issue that companies are continually forced to address in one way or another. To help in that endeavor, stay tuned for Part II next week where implementing and maximizing ergonomics will be discussed along with applying ergonomics outside of a typical workplace environment.