Safety Matters: Ergonomics Make Sense for Your Health and Your Bottom Line

Sprains and strains are the most expensive injuries

With all the health and safety issues inherent in aircraft maintenance, not to mention OSHA compliance and regulations, why be concerned about ergonomics?

For one thing, ergonomic injuries are among the most expensive. Paying attention to ergonomics makes good business sense. First, the work requires less effort when an ergonomic solution is found. It takes less time — and if you can reduce time on the job, you’re more productive.

Second, review your employees’ injury patterns. Odds are there are a lot of sprains and strains. In a physically demanding industry like aircraft maintenance, there is an accumulation of wear and tear to backs, knees, and joints. These are the most expensive injuries in terms of lost work time, restricted work duty, and worker compensation expenses.

Ignoring ergonomics is costly
The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported 867,766 cases of work-related strains, sprains, and back injuries in 2003, and the costs associated with these injuries continue to escalate. Depending on the severity of a particular injury, it is not uncommon for those who require corrective surgery to incur workers’ compensation costs — medical, lost-time benefits, disability ratings, replacement workers, and potential litigation — that easily total $100,000 or more per injury. Only a few such costly injuries can have a severe impact on a small or medium-sized company’s profitability, and even affect its ability to remain in business.

Along with the employers’ costs, affected workers also pay a price for ergonomic injuries. This cost ranges from losing a few days of normal activity to the loss of livelihood in the most severe injuries.

Now for the good news … there is time to prevent these types of injuries. It takes time to develop soft tissue injuries to muscles. It’s not a one-time incident, but a buildup of strain. A number and variety of tasks can be the culprit. This also means that by taking a proactive approach, a company can examine work practices and analyze risk factors before people get hurt.

Risk factors and solutions
One-time injuries such as burns, lacerations, or falls are easier to diagnose and prevent because it’s easier to see how to prevent them. Since aircraft maintenance is not repetitive, assemblyline type of work, preventing ergonomic injuries requires looking at general things. Are arms lifted over the head to work underneath? Are workers in awkward postures, twisting and bending the torso? Are they holding unbalanced or fatiguing postures or simply remaining in a posture for a long time? Are they exerting with their small muscles instead of large muscles? Are there sudden exertions like vibrations, jerks, or slams to the body? Are they using forceful gripping or squeezing? 

To address any of these problems requires your safety team to redesign the work practices so it is not so difficult. Note that I said “redesign the work practices” — don’t try to redesign the worker. Look at the work, not the worker. Don’t try to fix the problem by trying to make your workers more physically fit or instigating a stretching regime before the work begins. Though none of these is bad, it just doesn’t solve the problem. Fix the problem by making the work easier.

My experience with ergonomic studies in the automotive as well as gas, water, and electric utility industries is that intervention can prevent 80 percent of ergonomic injuries and that 80 percent is what you need to go after. The other 20 percent is the “nature of the beast” work. Eventually we’ll fix those as well.

Make the supervisor or crew leader the most important person in your ergonomic program. Constant contact with the workers makes him or her the most informed to know which tasks are the most hazardous and cause the most injuries. The supervisor has to be accountable for his or her team’s ergonomic injuries and has to believe that the program is an important undertaking.

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