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

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.

This is not as huge a responsibility for a supervisor as it may seem. Often all that is required is repositioning equipment, and remembering that taking the time to stop and plan ahead before the work begins can make the easier and prevent injuries.

Three ergonomic fallacies
The first ergonomic fallacy is that your aging work force is most at risk. In fact, older workers know their limitations and work much more safely than younger people. Additionally, we won’t ever have a work force of only 25-year-old gorillas — the work force is always aging.

The second fallacy is that personal protective equipment, physical conditioning, and training will prevent ergonomic injuries. Ergonomics does not depend on the worker. Even with the best of intentions, fatigue, distraction, stress, or environmental conditions can prevent the worker from doing what they’ve been trained to do. Ergonomics looks at the problems and solutions in the whole work practice including tools, equipment, materials, and the employee’s movements and prevents injuries for a whole work group, not just the individual.

The third fallacy is that designing out ergonomic risk factors is expensive. It’s doing nothing that can be a very expensive risk — sometimes intervention costs nothing. Large companies may have their own ergonomic team or may send their safety team to an ergonomist for half a day of training pertaining to their industry. If you do hire an ergonomist, make sure it is someone who knows your industry. In my experience, the best ergonomic solutions are based on the expertise of the workers. They know their bodies and can best identify what activities take the most tolls and the most effort.

The ergonomics mindset
Ergonomics often gets put at the bottom of the pile of concerns for business owners. In fact, when the cost of doing nothing is considered, ergonomics is the most important safety measure one can undertake, short of preventing fatalities. Business owners should make an ergonomics program part of the business’s annual strategic plan. Ask yourself, what did we do for ergonomic improvements this year? Once you get into the mindset that ergonomics will make a difference, you’ll never look back. 

General Lifting Guidelines

  • Before lifting an object, the employee shall inspect it for sharp edges, slivers, protruding nails, grease, or other things that might cause injury. Gloves shall be worn as required.
  • Employees shall not lift any object without estimating its size, weight, and balance of the load and judging their ability to lift it safely and to maintain control with a secure grip and secure footing.
  • Assistance or mechanical aids shall be obtained if the object is too large, too heavy, or too awkward for the employee to handle.
  • Employees shall clear the path before carrying an object.
  • When two employees will carry an object, they shall briefly tailgate and agree upon the route, method, and readiness to begin.
  • Employees should not try to change the position of the load or adjust their grip while carrying it. The employee(s) should rest the object on something or even drop it in order to prevent injury.
  • Risk of injury can be reduced if employees try to avoid twisting by moving the feet rather than twisting the torso and keeping the load as close to the body as possible at near-waist level. 

Seeley has a Certification in Professional Ergonomics (CPE), is a Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH), and is secretary of the American Industrial Hygiene Association’s Ergonomics Committee. She is employed as a consultant at Ergonomic Solutions LLC of Wales, WI. For more information send email to ergo@wi.rr.com, call (262) 370-2417, or visit www.ergonomics-solutions.com.

Anticipating health and safety issues and taking action to prevent them is a long-term and profitable investment for companies. For more information on industrial hygiene and methods for promoting health and safety in the workplace, as well as a listing of industrial hygiene consultants, please visit the American Industrial Hygiene Association website at www.aiha.org.