To help keep workers injury-free, every health and safety manager must recognize the importance of ergonomics in the workplace.
What Are Ergonomics?
The field of ergonomics is broad: it addresses how people interact with the made environment. That includes postures their environment encourages them to take and movements it requires them to make. The goal is for those interactions to be as natural and healthy as possible. As you can imagine, ergonomics can be applied to just about every work environment and job.
The principles of ergonomics apply to four primary scenarios in the workplace:
- Objects workers use
- Processes workers perform
- Spaces workers inhabit
- How workers move objects
Proper ergonomics contribute to well-being, efficiency, and long-term health.
What Is the Importance of Ergonomics for Safety at Work?
Health and safety managers must deal with many facets of worker well-being; sometimes it’s difficult to decide what to prioritize. This may leave managers asking, “Why is ergonomics important in the workplace? Why should I spend my time and budget on this slice of the safety pie?”
Poor ergonomics is a major contributor to acute workplace injuries and injuries that develop over time. An example of an acute injury caused by poor ergonomics is back strain caused by lifting an object using poor technique.
Many jobs require people to perform the same movement again and again, day after day. Over the long term, if someone is repeatedly engaging in movements that are unhealthy—not ergonomic—that can lead to discomfort, injury, and disability. These are known as repetitive stress or overuse injuries.
Workers often sit or stand for long periods of time. Poor posture caused by an ill-fitting workstation leads to pain and injury. Chronic neck and shoulder pain are commonly associated with poor workstation ergonomics.
People spend a huge portion of their life at work. By some estimates, we spend one-third of our life working. That means that if we’re going to experience a repetitive stress or posture-related injury, it’ll likely be in the workplace.
Repetitive stress and posture-related injuries take time to develop, so the poor movement pattern or posture that causes an injury could go overlooked for weeks or months before the injury sets in. Similarly, people may get away with poor lifting technique many times without getting injured—until that one time when it all goes wrong. Muscle strains, sprains, and tears, as well as repetitive stress injuries, are one of the most common workplace injuries.
These injuries are preventable. This is why health and safety managers should emphasize the importance of ergonomics in the workplace in their program planning: this is low-hanging safety fruit.
Preventing Overuse and Poor Movement Injuries
Educate your workforce about ergonomics and frequently reinforce ergonomic practices: this is an excellent topic for a safety moment. Address each of the four scenarios where workers should apply ergonomic practices.
Work Spaces or Environments
Here we are concerned with how a person sits, stands, or moves at work. Some examples to consider in an office environment include: Are the desks arranged to encourage good posture? Do workers who have to talk on the phone and type at the same time have headsets so they don’t have to cradle a phone between their ear and shoulder? Are there standing desk options and, if so, are the desks at the right height?
This addresses any work situation where an employee must perform a series of tasks, often repeatedly. Assembly line work is a classic example. Is everything the worker needs close and easy to reach? Are the movements required to complete the task natural and efficient? Does the necessary equipment move freely without causing undue strain?
Objects Workers Use
Make sure the tools or equipment your workers use are easy to handle and allow natural movement. Tools and equipment should feel like an extension of the body. Are they easy to grip? Are they a manageable size and weight? Are all tools or equipment in good working order?
How Workers Move Objects
Teach workers the proper way to lift, pull, and push objects. This is a very simple fix, and yet injuries from poor lifting, pushing, and pulling technique continue to top the charts when it comes to the causes of workplace injuries.
In addition to regularly educating your workforce about healthy movement and posture, work with your staff to ensure that they’re able to implement ergonomic practices. Safety is a team effort, especially where ergonomics is concerned.
Workers are the only ones who will be able to detect if the duties they’re asked to perform cause them discomfort or pain. If they experience a situation they can’t fix in the moment, they should be encouraged to report it to management. Provide easy ways for staff to give feedback whenever they see room for improvement.
Workers also need to help each other. If someone sees a co-worker using improper lifting techniques, they should be encouraged to step in and help. Someone tasked with lifting an object that’s too heavy for them should feel comfortable asking for help without fearing repercussions.
Encourage workers to pause, move, rest, and stretch as needed. Pause to check in before moving an object to ensure proper technique. Pause throughout the day to check in with posture and how they’re moving.
Workers should get up and move if their job requires them to be in a static sitting or standing posture for long periods of time. Someone whose job is active should take rest breaks, as needed, to stay fresh and alert.
All workers should be encouraged to stretch throughout the day. If we ask our bodies to do the same thing for too long, even if we’re doing it in a way that’s ergonomically sound, we’ll experience fatigue and discomfort—and eventually injury.
This short video provides a recap of how to prevent injuries associated with poor ergonomics:
Addressing ergonomics isn’t difficult, but it does require education and vigilance. This will be time and effort well spent, however, because poor ergonomics are responsible for so many common workplace injuries, all of which are avoidable.
Health and safety managers who focus on the importance of ergonomics in the workplace will have a safer, healthier, and happier workforce.