The science of ergonomics is among the most important tools for risk managers when it comes to keeping workers safe and costs low. Musculoskeletal disorders and repetitive strain injuries contribute a significant share of all occupational afflictions each year, and both are driven in large part by hazardous body postures and task designs. The goal of ergonomics as a science is to understand how these postures and the demands of each job affect the worker’s body; in application, ergonomics focuses on correcting these behaviors and mechanics to better suit the work being performed, and to adjust workstations and the work itself to better promote safety and productivity from the organizational level all the way down to the individual employee. As DORN’s senior certified ergonomic assessment specialist Denise Pontbriand states, ergonomics “considers the match between the person, the equipment they use, the process, and the work environment,” addressing all combined factors that contribute to both success at the workplace and unfortunate, costly injuries.
What is an ergonomic assessment?
In order to accurately and effectively target solutions that foster better health and safety among workers, risk managers utilize ergonomic assessments, the first and most important step in the ergonomics process. The goal of an ergonomic assessment, in brief, is to observe workstations, departments, and individual employees to define the risk factors that contribute to MSDs and other common work-related injuries, aiming to provide a picture of the work environment that allows managers to make proactive changes. Any thorough ergonomic assessment should address the work site from a holistic perspective, utilizing both qualitative and quantitative measures to describe the nature of risk factors and provide recommendations for change. Rather than splitting these two types of evaluation, an effective ergonomic assessment includes analysis from both angles.
For ergonomic assessors, the qualitative portion is essential in defining the scope and breadth of an organization’s ergonomic needs; according to Pontbriand, “It’s an exploratory investigation—it uses categories and is not conclusive.” The quantitative phase is more specific, incorporating definite measurements and hard data to make detailed recommendations to management following the assessment. Qualitative asks questions like, “What type of force does the worker use for this task?” A quantitative measurement, meanwhile, asks the more detailed question: “How much force must the worker apply to complete this task?” Qualitative analysis informs quantitative data, which is then used to improve the work environment and reduce the risks of MSDs and other injuries.
Most Common Ergonomic Risk Factors
The chief goal of an ergonomic assessment is to discover and better understand the forces and techniques that employees use to complete their tasks. The most common results of these evaluations are shared across industries and work types, incurring billions of dollars in costs from workers’ compensation claims, lost productivity, and absenteeism. Pontbriand notes that awkward postures, poor body mechanics, and repetitive tasks, all of which contribute to MSDs and RSIs. Both injury types also imply a host of other problems, including low employee morale, chronic pain, and fatigue, which impose their own costs and obstacles on operations.
What does a typical ergonomic assessment look like?
An ergonomic assessment can involve and entire facility or can focus on a single workstation. Shorter assessments often target specific locations or task functions—these “mini-assessments” typically take about 30 minutes of analysis in the workplace, and usually identifies positive aspects of a workstation, risk factors, and risk modifications, or controls. Ideally, an ergonomic assessment includes some interaction with the employee in order to better understand how that individual experiences their job and the various discomforts and challenges they face in their work.
Once the assessment is complete, the assessor generates a report that highlights positive aspects of the review alongside risk factors. Synthesizing these observations, the evaluator provides recommendations for change that can fall into one of two categories.
Administrative Controls vs. Engineering Controls
One of the most important and useful aspects of an ergonomic assessment is how it can be shaped and customized to fit the specific needs of each enterprise, based on the type of work being done and other factors, such as a company’s budget.
“Recommendations can be tailored to meet budgetary restrictions,” Pontbriand says. “We make suggestions of two types: administrative controls and engineering controls.”
Administrative controls are changes that can be made at the management level, without actually altering the physical mechanics or tools involved with completing a task. These include job rotation, job task refinement, alternative tasks, and proper body mechanics training that can achieve the same result with a lower risk of ergonomic injury. These tend to be easier changes to implement at the operational level, and require less financial investment.
Engineering controls, meanwhile, incorporate more tangible changes into the workstation and the work environment as a whole. These improvements can include changes to workstation design, equipment usage, and tooling. As Pontbriand tells us, “It’s a costlier process, but I recommend these types of controls for organizations to use for long-term planning.” Though making these improvements may require investment from management, the cost savings are substantial—as are the effects on productivity and morale.
Examples of Successful Ergonomic Assessments
Recently, Pontbriand was tasked with performing an ergonomic assessment after a company’s EHS manager requested assistance with a worker who was operating two machines simultaneously. The operator needed to use bilateral hand controls to accomplish his tasks while standing in an awkward body posture. During the analysis, Pontbriand discovered several issues: “We found the worker was required to maintain a static, awkward stance,” she says. “The risks observed were forward-flexed posture, a short work cycle with high production expectations, significant contact stress to his hands, and poor wrist position.” The employee had reported elbow pain, and the assessment revealed a need for intervention.
In response, Pontbriand says she initiated recommendations for on-site pain relief therapy, and began working to educate the employee in better body mechanics, self-care techniques, and micro breaks. She suggested job rotation as an administrative control that could be immediately implemented to allow the employee to perform functions that incorporated different motion types, relieving the risky, repetitive nature of the work. Engineering controls included changes to the workstation design as soon as resources were available to do so.
Following the intervention, the employee in question reported greatly reduced pain, and felt that the assessment had made a positive impact. He stated that his attitude had become more positive at work, and he reported a much greater awareness of his own body movements and mechanics, feeling empowered to take charge of his health and safety at work.
Incorporating Technology into Ergonomic Initiatives
Any effective workplace safety program, whether it is based on ergonomics, biomechanics, or the work environment, must use all the available tools to survey risk factors from every perspective. Technology plays an important role in ergonomic assessments, and enterprises stand to benefit from technological integration in their safety programs after a specialist has made recommendations. During the assessment process, specialists may introduce wearable devices that collect bio-ergonomic data from each worker, helping to inform a deep understanding of the employee’s specific needs and challenges in their jobs. Following the assessment, organizations can deploy software self-assessment and self-correction tools that empower workers to monitor their ergonomic health and make proactive adjustments for their own comfort. Even artificial intelligence has a role to play in workplace safety, augmenting a company’s analytical abilities and providing detailed information that can inform cost-saving changes.
How can managers communicate the importance of ergonomics?
Building a safety culture at a worksite can help connect workers to their own health and safety.
“The employees are part of the solution,” Pontbriand says. “When employees take ownership of their work, they are eager and open to making changes. As an ergonomist, I find the employee’s input invaluable.”
In order to facilitate and foster this environment of continuous improvement, managers must actively communicate with their employees and demonstrate an understanding that the worker knows their job better than anyone.
“We’re at the worksite talking to employees, learning about their jobs and their challenges,” Pontbriand says. “When you engage with the workers and get them invested in their health and their safety, you built a culture of safety that makes everybody better.”