When people think about accident prevention and safety measures, they often focus on dramatic accidents. This makes sense; accidents are scary and life-altering.
But there's a less overt--yet just as important--cause of workplace injuries. It goes by many names: repetitive strain injury, cumulative trauma disorder, musculoskeletal disorders and more but all these injuries involve repetitive motions that wear down the body over time.
OSHA's Safety Pays estimator calculates that a single such injury (categorized under Carpal Tunnel Syndrome) costs a business an average of $63,000 in combined direct and indirect costs. With numbers like that, it makes sense to prevent repetitive strain injuries (RSIs).
When you think about RSIs, what causes come to mind? Generally, people envision sore wrists from typing in awkward positions. Typing-related injuries are well known because they're common across industries, but in truth, any repetitive action will wear down tendons and ligaments over time.
Keep in mind that every facility is different, and each job is different. So if you want to stop a potential strain injury before you're paying for claims, you need to do some digging.
The ideal time to look for this workplace hazard is during the setup of your workplace safety plan. If RSIs were overlooked, don't fret. They're living documents and can always be improved.
Because of the inherent variation in work environments and tasks, no standardized workplace safety checklist will anticipate all the places where RSIs will happen. Your auditing process needs to include careful observation, and that's where fresh eyes come in.
Do Your Research, Part 1: Fresh Eyes
- Watch people as they work.
- Observe how their bodies move
- Note the repetitive actions you see and focus on those
If you're responsible for a large facility and don't have time to observe everyone personally, ask your floor supervisors to set aside time to observe their workers and make notes. Give them specific instructions and questions to ensure that you get useful information. Don't be afraid to let people know you're focused on repetitive strain. Get them talking. You might be surprised at what useful information bubbles up when people start thinking about how they move.
Solve the Problems
You won't be able to prevent every strain injury, but focus on what you can change and stay open to new ideas. Encourage everyone (especially yourself) to approach the issue with an open mind.
Once you've identified the problem areas, it's time to look for solutions--don't overlook the most simple. For instance, adjusting the heights of work surfaces or rearranging work stations often takes minimal effort and can improve safety substantially.
Do Your Research, Part 2: Innovative Tools
Ergonomics have inspired the redesign of many standard tools, so look for modern versions before you make an attempt to reinvent the wheel. Online research is one way to find them; also watch videos, read reviews and ask your safety colleagues for suggestions. Trade shows are another great option.
Once you've found appealing tools, contact their manufacturers and request samples, then give them to key workers for testing. Make sure to collect feedback. After an optional trial period for all workers, eliminate the old tools and make ergonomics a cornerstone of your workplace safety culture.
Unfortunately, it takes years for repetitive strain injuries to appear, but accident prevention and safety measure research is ongoing. Look to organizations such as the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors for word of new ergonomic technology. Each year, this UK group presents their Ergonomic Design Awards to highlight advances in the field. Adding repetitive strain prevention to your safe work practices makes sense and, in the long run, saves dollars.