Developing ergonomics programs for enhanced productivity and safety
By Michelle Garetson
Ergonomics and its application in the workplace has become an increasingly important issue for management and workers alike. Regardless of the industry, occupation, or business, it is important to continually evaluate current practices to determine if they are adequate in protecting employees from injury and to develop programs to enhance productivity and safety.
What is ergonomics?
Ergonomics, also known as human engineering, is an applied science that melds characteristics of the job or product with those of humans for safety and efficiency.
When there is a mismatch between the physical requirements of the job and the physical ability of the worker, work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs) can result. Workers whose jobs require repetitive motion, doing work in an awkward position, using a great deal of force to perform their jobs, repeated lifting of heavy objects, or whose jobs involve a combination of these risk factors are most likely to develop WMSDs.
Are WMSDs a serious problem ?
The most recent data available, from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) for 1997, reports that 626,000 U.S. workers experienced musculoskeletal disorders serious enough to require time away from work for recuperation in that year. Another significant influence of WMSDs on the economy is the fact that employers annually pay out, in direct workers' compensation costs, between $15 billion to $18 billion, or about one dollar of every three dollars in workers' compensation amounts. When indirect costs are added to this figure, the annual costs to employers are likely to reach $45 billion to $54 billion.
OSHA's Ergonomic Proposal
OSHA has developed a national ergonomics protection program that was published in the Federal Register in November 1999. Earlier this year, the agency held a number of public hearings around the country and a comment period followed to allow people who testified at those hearings to provide more information. OSHA is targeting the end of calendar year 2000 to issue the final ergonomics standard.
This proposed standard is a program standard, i.e., one that requires employers to establish a basic framework incorporating agreed-upon core elements, but gives employers the flexibility to outline workplace-specific details.
Setting up an ergonomic program
The first order of business would be to evaluate the types of jobs and tasks present in your operations to determine what changes in practices and equipment are needed. Some questions to consider involve the task as well as the workplace:
• Are workers exerting considerable physical effort to complete a motion?
• Are workers performing tasks that involve long reaches or many repetitions?
• Are working surfaces too high or too low? • Are hand and power tools right for the task and worker?
• Does the job involve vibrating working surfaces, machinery, or vehicles?
• Is the workplace lighting adequate?
Elements of the program
After evaluation, the following are program elements to consider that would be required by OSHA's proposed standard.
• Management leadership and employee participation
• Hazard information and reporting
• Job hazard analysis and control
• MSD/Medical management
• Program evaluation.
A successful program should include provisions to reduce repeated motions, forceful hand exertions, prolonged bending or working above shoulder height, and to reduce vibration. Use equipment - not backs - for heavy or repetitive lifting and provide short breaks to allow muscles to recover.
One program does not fit all
While no one will ever be able to say that "X" number of repetitions or lifting "X" pounds will result in injury or that "Y" number of repetitions or "Y" pounds will definitely NOT result in injury, many employers have developed and implemented effective ergonomics programs and common sense solutions to take on causes of WMSDs in their workplaces. (Please see sidebar pg. 142)
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