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Ergonomics in the Workplace
"Ergonomics" comes from two Greek words: ergos, meaning work, and nomos, meaning laws. Today ergonomics is defined as the science of designing the workplace to accommodate the worker. A Polish scientist and educator by the name of Wojciech Jatrzebowski first introduced ergonomics more than 120 years ago. However, ergonomics were not widely used until World War II. Keeping up with the fast pace of manufacturing war products, such as aircraft, radar and other items, created physical and psychological problems. Teams of engineers, psychologists, anthropologists and physiologists were brought together to help solve these problems. This was not recognized as ergonomics until much later. Instead, terms such as "engineering psychology" and "human engineering" were used.
Investment and Return
Most workplace modifications are relatively inexpensive, especially when you compare the cost of implementation to the benefits you can gain. Simple modifications, such as adjustable chairs, footrests or work platform heights, can significantly reduce workplace stress.
Applying ergonomics in the workplace can be very beneficial. Alleviating workplace stress to employees can result in:
Improved: productivity, efficiency and employee morale
Decreased: lost work days, employee turnover, workers compensation claims, costly repetitive injuries and repetitive trauma disorders
One area often overlooked is training. For example, you may already have adjustable chairs and/or adjustable video display terminals (VDTs), but if your employees are not aware of proper height adjustments, it is unlikely the equipment will be adjusted properly. VDT usage is increasing at an incredible rate. An estimated 60 million workers, or 75% of the workforce, currently use VDTs every day.
Employees need to be trained on ergonomic issues to aid in identifying problem areas within their jobs. Employee participation is an excellent method of reducing ergonomic problems. Employees are on the front line and can often identify problem areas that could go unnoticed by looking through accident records or workers compensation claims records. Employee suggestions need to be acknowledged and taken seriously. The goal of employee participation is to stimulate thinking about problem solving, create and maintain interest in safety and increase morale.
It is important to evaluate the physical limitations of all employees. It's common to see a petite person lifting heavy objects from the floor to a location way over his/her head, while in the same area a very tall person will be sitting at a small work platform, hunched over trying to perform light-duty work. Obviously, in this situation, it would be better to switch job responsibilities. Although this may be an over-simplification, it does show the importance of considering the physical limitations of employees and placing them where they can perform best.
Ironically, many employers spend much more time examining the physical limitations of their machinery than their employees. For example, if an employer is looking for a crane, he would compare a variety of cranes before making the final decision. He would look at all the cranes' capabilities and limitations and learn about the maintenance schedule, maximum lifting capacities, turning radius, etc. Employees are long-term investments, too, and should receive similar treatment. After all, if a crane breaks down, it can be fixed by replacing the defective part. Employees do not have that option, and quite often, never fully recover from injuries or illnesses.
Employers can supply their workers with ergonomically designed work tools, furniture and supplies and use them per the manufacturer's specifications. However, this is only the first step. It is very important to get individual employee feedback. Each individual is different and each worker has their own history that may determine special requirements for ergonomic devices.
OSHA published the final ergonomics program standard on Nov. 14, 2000. The final rule applies to general-industry employers whose employees perform manufacturing or manual handling tasks or who report musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). The standard 29 CFR 1910.900 was to go into effect Jan. 16, 2001, but the rule was never implemented. The standard was set to focus on the reduction of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) in all industries falling under the OSHA general industry standards. Workers whose jobs involve repetitive motion, force, awkward postures, contact stress or vibration develop common MSDs. However, the standard was broadly denounced as being excessively burdensome and complicated and was rejected by congress. Currently, there is not an OSHA standard specifically for ergonomics.
On April 5, 2002, OSHA announced a comprehensive plan to reduce ergonomic injuries. The plan is designed to significantly reduce ergonomic injuries through a combination of industry-targeted guidelines, tough enforcement, workplace outreach, advanced research and dedicated measures to protect Hispanics and other immigrant workers.Guidelines
In an effort to inform various industries about the importance of ergonomics, OSHA has produced a few ergonomic guidelines.
On March 13, 2003, OSHA released their ergonomics guidelines covering the nursing home industry.
On May 28, 2004, OSHA issued an ergonomics guideline for the retail grocery store industry.
On September 2, 2004, OSHA issued an ergonomics guideline for the poultry processing industry.
In 2008, OSHA published new ergonomics guidelines that could help employers and their employees in the shipyard industry prevent musculoskeletal injuries. Ergonomics for the Prevention of Musculoskeletal Disorders: Guidelines for Shipyards provides practical recommendations for employers to reduce the number and severity of workplace injuries in their facilities. It also helps employers identify, evaluate and control hazards by using best practices that have been successful in shipyards.
OSHA now has a plan to crack down on those who ignore this issue by conducting inspections with a legal strategy designed for successful prosecution. They are planning on paying close attention to industries with serious ergonomics issues that have been previously and successfully prosecuted under the General Duty Clause cases. OSHA will have a team of inspectors that will be working very closely with the Department of Labor (DOL) attorneys to bring about successful prosecutions under the General Duty Clause.
The General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1) states:
(a) Each Employer
(1) shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment, which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees
(2) shall comply with occupational safety and health standards promulgated under this Act
(b) Each Employee shall comply with occupational safety and health standards and all rules, regulations and orders pursuant to this Act which are applicable to his own actions and conduct.
OSHA's new plan will also provide assistance tools to help workplaces reduce and prevent ergonomic injuries. OSHA will be providing specialized training on guidelines and provide information on the implementation of effective ergonomics programs. OSHA will also be administering targeted training grants, develop compliance assistance aids, create partnerships and develop a recognition program to acknowledge successful ergonomic injury reduction efforts.
The agency's new plan includes a specialized focus to help Hispanic and other immigrant workers. Many of these workers have limited English proficiency and commonly work in areas of high ergonomic injury rates.
Another part of this comprehensive plan is the development of a national advisory committee. Part of this committees objective is to advise OSHA on research gaps. The Bureau of Labor Statistics is showing that MSDs are already on the decline. OSHA intends to continue this trend with the support of their comprehensive plan to prevent and reduce ergonomics-related injuries.
Commonly Asked Questions
|Q.||When selecting a back support belt, is it better to go with a rigid-style belt or a soft elastic-style belt when lifting heavy objects?|
|A.||In theory, although the elastic-style belts are generally more comfortable, rigid-style belts are supposed to increase intra-abdominal pressure, which in turn, should provide more support to the stomach/back muscles and vertebrae.|
|Q.||What is OSHA using as an enforcement tool without a specific ergonomic standard?|
|A.||OSHA is currently using The General Duty Clause CFR Part 1977.1. Also, with this new comprehensive plan, they are placing special emphasis on violators of ergonomics issues with prior successful prosecutions.|
Ergonomics: A Practical Guide, National Safety Council.
Moore, Deborah. Managers Guide to Workplace Ergonomics. Business and Legal Reports, 1991.
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The information contained in this publication is intended for general information purposes only. This publication is not a substitute for review of the applicable government regulations and standards, and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion. Readers with specific questions should refer to the cited regulation or consult with an attorney.