Ergonomics: Just a Big Word or Is There Real Benefit?

Ergonomics, a big word; the interpretation, “take care of your body.” Ergonomics, synonymous with human engineering, and repetitive motion/muscular stress studies, consider the interaction between the human body and physical work. The application to aircraft maintenance personnel is almost endless in scope. Recent OSHA studies show that nationally there is 50 workers injured every minute of a 40-hour workweek. In 2013, for a combined 5,233 injuries, the average injury cost was $20,000. According to United Airlines, 60 percent of all injuries per month can be attributed to sprains and strains.

Work-related musculoskeletal disorders, including those of the neck, upper extremities and low back are one of the leading causes of lost workday injury and illness. These can affect aircraft maintenance technicians as they complete routine tasks involving movements such as lifting heavy items, bending, reaching overhead, pushing and pulling heavy loads, working in awkward body postures, and performing the same or similar tasks repetitively. Exposure to these known risk factors for musculoskeletal disorders increases a worker’s risk of injury. The good news is it takes time to build up to a soft tissue injury; most are not a one-time event, so being pro-active can pay off handsomely.

 

Redesign work practices

Implementation of an ergonomic process that redesigns work practices to avoid injury has proven positive in protecting workers against injury. Management would be wise to involve mechanics in the process by soliciting their input and suggestions on which parts of the body are subject to stress, and how to re-engineer processes, postures, and body movements to avoid injury. Remember, you cannot redesign the worker, but you can redesign the work practice. Early reporting of muscular stress will provide insight in identifying and evaluating changes that should take place in an ergonomic assessment. Early reporting helps to reduce the progression of the symptoms and arrest the development of serious injuries involving lost time from work and expensive medical claims for treatment.

To gain the most benefit from controlling injury hazards, the ergonomic process should not be just a one-time focused project, but should be woven into the fabric of the repair station’s culture continuously over time. Of course, training to the process is paramount to success. Employees will need to understand how and why these injuries are likely to occur, as well as how to protect themselves and the changes that are necessary to affect that end.

Identifying the risk factors can be accomplished by asking some pertinent questions about work practices.

  • Are mechanics arms lifted over the head to perform work above the body?
  • Are mechanics in awkward postures, twisting and bending the torso?
  • Are mechanics holding unbalanced or fatiguing postures or simply remaining in a posture for a long time?
  • Are mechanics using smaller muscles to exert force rather than larger muscles?
  • Are there sudden exertions like vibrations, jerks, or slams to the body?
  • Are mechanics using forceful gripping or squeezing?
  • Are mechanics always using the same hand for repetitive tasks?

 

Risk assessment

Let’s consider the example of an ergonomic risk assessment for the Naval Facilities Ergonomic Command. The mechanics and technicians are working in an electronics shop. The technicians are responsible for removing, repairing, testing, and replacing electronics components. Employees work at workstations performing primarily soldering operations, requiring them to observe the components through a microscope. Technicians typically spend three to four hours per day using a microscope. This results in sustained awkward postures of the back, neck, and shoulders, as well as repetitive manipulations and awkward postures associated with hand tool use. The required postures restrict blood flow and can cause muscle fatigue as well as place the employee at risk of developing musculoskeletal disorders. Electronics repair requires sustained pinch grips while using tools. Awkward postures can fatigue muscles and cause the technicians to exert more force than is necessary. Additionally, employees repeatedly perform extended reaches while reaching for equipment and tools. Extended reaches are examples of awkward postures that require the body to deviate from the neutral in the arms, shoulders, and back. Repeatedly performing tasks in such positions impose increased stress on the muscles and joints.

 

Solutions

Solutions to the development of muscle stress include a combination of changes in the workstation areas and stretching exercises for personnel to incorporate into their workday. Adding a pedestal to the workstation base, and allowing for adjustments in height of chairs, electrical outlets, and task lighting reduced the need for sustained awkward postures that took the body out of its neutral position. Try the use of fixtures to hold repair parts where applicable. Many designs may be manufactured or assembled in house if you truly give some thought to the process. Raising and angling the parts toward the worker will promote neutral postures and reduce bending of the back and neck.

Stretches throughout the day relieve stress and fatigue. They should be gentle and comfortable holding for 30 to 60 seconds. Stretching the thighs, the chest, low back calves, hips, and both sides of the torso regularly is taking a pro-active approach to managing potential injury. Developing core strength assists with lifting or moving heavy objects. Aligning your body by bending with your butt out and using both arms to lift protect your spine and discs. It is also helpful to bring objects to be lifted closer to you to gain leverage. Remember, the heavier the object the greater the risk, so when bending your legs, keep your knees over your second toes, and do not twist.

If affordable, you may find ways to replace equipment to transfer strain away from the worker onto the equipment. A great example of this is a new fueling nozzle developed by Schulz Engineering that eliminates strain and trauma to the wrist.

The aim is to find the best fit between the person and job conditions. Of course this does not just apply to the workplace. Try not to ignore the fact that injuries are just as likely or even more likely to occur outside the workplace, especially at home, simply because we likely do not focus as much on safety at home as we do at work. Many of us wear our personal protective equipment religiously on the job, but do not even think of putting it on in our own garage even if we are doing similar tasks. When you really think about it, employees who injure themselves at home still have lost time from work and claims for medical costs.

Implementing ergonomic processes and making changes to prevent costly injuries need not be expensive or difficult. There is a plethora of ergonomic strategies available online. With some research you can develop a plan, train to that plan, and implement it. Employees will feel better and likely be more productive, complain less, and miss fewer workdays.

 

Deborah Ann Cavalcante leads Diversified Aviation Consulting (DAC) and along with her associates has firsthand experience in air carrier operations, private charter aircraft, general aviation operations, military/civilian interface, FBO management, maintenance repair station training, safety training, human factors training, and customer service training. For more information on DAC visit www.dac.aero.

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