Work-related musculoskeletal disorder, WMSD, is the term for that neck strain workers go home with after a marathon session at a computer screen, the back pain from moving boxes on a conveyor all day or sore wrists after eight hours of fast and accurate data entry.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that millions of workers are affected by pain and discomfort from sitting, standing, computer work and prolonged repetitive movements while working. And WMSDs cost employers billions in worker’s compensation medical expenses, and lost productivity. All of this adds up to a big incentive to implement ergonomics management programs.
What Is Ergonomics Management?
Occupational ergonomics, as described by OSHA training guides, is the art and science of designing the work to fit the worker to improve productivity and reduce the risk of injury. Similarly, the Society for Human Resources Management defines ergonomics as “designing the job and workplace to fit the worker rather than the other way around.” OSHA advises that ergonomics programs should be part of an overall safety program, and says that management commitment is essential to effective ergonomics management. Likewise, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agrees that management support of ergonomics efforts is key.
Ergonomics management includes identifying issues in the workplace that can cause musculoskeletal problems and other risks; putting controls in place to prevent, reduce and eliminate WMSDs and training employees and management about how to use ergonomics practices. Furthermore, employers should talk to staff that may already be having problems and helping them remedy the situation. For example, employees may want to schedule an eye exam to talk about eye strain from computer work or visit a chiropractor to help with back and neck problems from excessive sitting or heavy lifting.
Easy steps for implementing ergonomics management are reviewing work and work areas for risk factors; controlling risk factors with engineering controls, administrative controls and personal protective equipment; understanding how to adjust the workspace to reduce risk and using workspace design principles to improve ergonomics.
- Step 1: Task analysis. This first step includes observation of the work area and how employees move in it. The CDC recommends teams or committees work to identify the need for ergonomic improvements by looking at work areas and surveying employees.
- Step 2: Engineering controls. Once risks have been identified, engineering controls can be designed and implemented to reduce or eliminate risks. Engineering controls include things like changing workstation layout so parts and tools are easier to reach and changing the process to reduce workers’ exposure to risks.
- Step 3: Administrative controls. These include things like rest breaks and job rotation so workers aren’t exposed to prolonged, repetitive or stressful movements. Don’t forget that this includes those who work in front of computer screens all day. Ergonomics solutions include adjusting screens to the proper viewing height, paying attention to adequate lighting, sitting up straight and keeping mice and keyboards within comfortable reach to reduce vision strain and overexertion.
For example, Cornell University published a 10 step guide for computer workstation ergonomics that follows a similar plan. It includes paying attention to who will use the computer and how it will be used, making sure the right furniture supports the computer and user, arranging computer and work supplies such as documents and other reading materials at comfortable viewing height and range and keeping work tools and supplies close for easy access without straining, overreaching or pulling.
Personal protective or supportive equipment is part of ergonomics. These make it easier to complete work tasks safely and comfortably. For instance, work stations should include:
- Wrist rests at computer keyboards
- Adjustable brightness on computer monitors
- Mechanical assisstive devices like push carts for moving large or heavy items
- Flexible turntables for holding work, parts and tools within easy reach
Work station design helps support the use of this equipment and is an important part of ergonomics. They all reduce injuries from reaching, turning, pulling and doing repetitive movements (or non-movements) for extended periods. Some design elements that can help include:
- Being able to adjust the work station
- Having chairs with adjustable heights and arm rests
- Having adjustable heights for work surfaces (such as regular and standing desks)
- Creating adequate space to move around in the work area
- Purchasing floor mats to reduce leg and back strain