What Is Ergonomic Safety?
Ergonomics is all about understanding how humans interact with various systems in their environment. In any setting, people face different products, tools, systems and methods that shape how they function individually or in groups. Depending on their design and capabilities, these tools can be a help or a hindrance.
Ergonomic safety, then, focuses on optimizing systems and other elements to keep people safe and healthy. Most often, ergonomic safety concerns the workplace. It involves how positions and situations at work affect the body, from the chair employees sit in to the way they lift heavy boxes. More specifically, ergonomic safety seeks to ensure a worker’s tools and environment fit their job requirements and personal capabilities.
The employee is always the first priority, and companies constantly look for ways to redesign equipment and offices in ways that promote safety, better habits and conditions.
Employees spend much of their time in the workplace, and ergonomics is related to safety. In fact, ergonomic disorders are one of the fastest-growing categories of work-related injuries. Ergonomic safety practices were developed to minimize those risks. When you use ergonomics to study people in their work environment, you’ll find better solutions to reduce injuries, increase employee satisfaction and productivity and create a better, happier environment for everyone.
What Is the Goal of Ergonomic Safety?
Ergonomic safety is a broad concept that encompasses a wide range of goals. However, the most essential objective of these practices is to design, modify or improve the work to fit the worker — not the other way around. Ergonomics seeks to ensure there’s always a good fit between employees and the job conditions, demands and environment in which they work.
Every industry has certain risks, and it’s the employer’s job to mitigate those risks. When you take greater responsibility for the safety, health and comfort of your workers, you can lessen muscle fatigue, reduce the number and severity of work-related injuries and increase productivity and satisfaction.
Implementing ergonomic safety best practices is necessary to counter a wide variety of risk factors and potential hazards at work. You’ll be able to reduce the risk of painful cumulative damage or stress among workers and maintain a stronger, more engaged workforce.
Ergonomic Risk Factors
When you walk into any office or job site, you’re likely to find ergonomic-related risks and potential areas of improvement wherever you look. Since ergonomics deals with all the systems people encounter in their workspace, you can view every part of the workplace through an ergonomic safety lens. Each step of the process is an opportunity to reduce musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) and keep workers safe.
Most commonly, ergonomic safety considers the physical demands a worker faces. It encompasses whether those requirements are within the employee’s purview to the tools and methods they use to perform their tasks. The most widespread ergonomic risk factors include:
- Repetitiveness: Repetition is one of the top causes of work-related injuries and strain. Repeated tasks, including typing at a desk and using the same wrist motions all day long or frequently lifting materials in the same way, put a strain on your body. This wear and tear adds up over time and may lead to MSDs or other injuries.
- Required force: Consider how much force or strength is required to perform certain tasks, such as carrying boxes or loading trucks and pallets. Overtaxing your employees can quickly lead to injuries, lost time and a more stressful workplace. Instead, ensure that physically-demanding tasks fit within each employee’s capabilities and job responsibilities.
- Prolonged positions: Just as a physically-active role can cause injuries, static work poses significant risks to workers, too. Far too many office workers are familiar with back pain after spending their day in an uncomfortable or inadequate office chair. Sitting or standing in the same place or position, maintaining an awkward posture and prolonged or excessive tasks all strain parts of your body.
- Inadequate tools: Workers often rely on computers, machines, industrial equipment and other tools to get the job done. If these products are broken, outdated or otherwise substandard, employees are at a greater risk for ergonomic disorders and injuries.
In addition to physical job demands and the tools they use, workers are also susceptible to external risks in their workplace. For example, extreme hot or cold temperatures on a job site, constant vibrations or other uncomfortable environments can lead to cumulative damage that harms workers over time.
Common Ergonomic Injuries
All of these risk factors caused ergonomic safety to develop. Risks can lead to ergonomic injuries, which can vary from headaches or tension in the neck after a long day to serious, long-lasting musculoskeletal disorders.
The type and severity of potential injuries depend on your industry and the risk factors mentioned above. However, the most common ergonomic injuries due to repetitive, forceful or awkward work include:
- Musculoskeletal disorders: These wide-ranging conditions affect your bones, joints, ligaments, tendons and other parts of your muscles and skeleton. MSDs can be acute injuries, like fractures or chronic conditions that last for a long time. Workplace musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs) are conditions caused by your job responsibilities or other work tasks.
- Carpal tunnel syndrome: One of the most common types of musculoskeletal disorders, carpal tunnel syndrome occurs when a nerve in your wrist is pinched, leading to numbness, weakness and pain in your hand, wrist and arm. Repeating the same motions or prolonged use, such as typing on a keyboard for long periods, can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome.
- Muscle strain: A number of activities or motions can lead to muscle strains and pain throughout your body, including your neck and between the shoulders.
- Rotator cuff injuries: Your rotator cuff is the area around your shoulder, including the muscles and tendons. While acute injuries like rotator cuff tears are possible, gradual degeneration caused by the wear and tear of repetitive motions at the workplace are common WMSDs.
- Lower back injuries: Whether a worker is lifting heavy boxes or sitting in the same position all day, lower back injuries are widespread on the job. Using the proper lifting methods or correcting your posture can help minimize back pain and complications.
- Eye strain: Looking at a computer screen or other electronics for several hours a day can put stress on the eyes, especially without adequate breaks.
How to Spot Ergonomic Hazards and Fix Them
Improving your workplace ergonomic safety requires spotting hazards or potential issues and fixing them. Always keep in mind the leading principle of ergonomics — designing and modifying work to better suit your workers and their capabilities. You’ll learn to prevent injuries, improve satisfaction and boost productivity.
Learn more about how you can implement ergonomic safety best practices in three areas — office workstations, physically-demanding tasks and on a managerial level.
Nine-to-five office workers are susceptible to ergonomic disorders. Fortunately, there are several solutions you can implement to keep your workplace safe. Some improvements are tools you can provide for your employees, while others are steps they can take themselves with adequate training:
- Redesigned tools and adjustable equipment: Modify chairs, desks, keyboards and other equipment to offer the maximum level of comfort and functionality possible. Employees should be able to adjust their space in a way that makes the most sense for each individual. For example, a tall employee will likely need a different chair or desk height than a shorter worker to prevent back pain or other MSDs.
- Work close to the body: Certain postures and movements put less wear and tear on your body than others. When you work at a desk that allows you to sit comfortably with enough padding, see the screen easily and maintain neutral joint positions, you’re more likely to avoid excessive strain or tension.
- Avoid eye strain: Taking regular breaks from looking at a screen can reduce the stress electronics place on your eyes.
- Alternate postures and motions: Even if you follow ergonomic best practices as you work, holding the same position all day strains your body. Encourage employees to change their postures and motions from time to time and give them adequate breaks to stretch and relax.
- Keep the workspace clean and clear: A neat workspace is easier to navigate, less prone to hazards and boosts office morale to reduce stress.
Handling Physically Demanding Tasks
Many workplace injuries occur when employees attempt active and demanding tasks, especially in industrial fields that require physical labor. Implement solutions like these to avoid sudden and chronic conditions among your workers:
- Know your limits: Using guidelines and evaluations, make sure you and your employees know their capabilities and limitations. No worker should exceed their advised limits. Label all loads with the correct weight to ensure everyone understands the requirements for every job.
- Follow proper lifting procedures: When handling or transporting materials or goods, avoid bending forward, twisting your trunk, reaching excessively or lifting above shoulder height. These actions put you at a higher risk for back injuries and WMSDs.
- Design and store materials ergonomically: Properly storing products or goods makes it easier for workers to avoid harmful actions or tasks like those mentioned above. Keeping boxes above waist height but below your shoulders makes it easier to move objects.
- Provide mechanical aids: Industrial tools help workers perform tasks so they don’t have to lift, push, pull and handle heavy materials manually. Provide carts and other mechanical aids for your employees.
Managerial Ergonomic Strategies
You can tackle ergonomic safety at every level. Focusing on ways you can improve your workers’ safety and comfort through supportive policies, better scheduling and other beneficial managerial decisions can have a huge impact:
- Identify problems proactively: The first step in solving a problem is defining it. Involve your workers in the process, inviting them to share their experiences and areas where they feel ergonomic safety could be improved. You should also encourage early reporting of MSDs and other workplace-related injuries so you can address problems before they become more severe.
- Provide clear guidelines, training and resources: Proper education about ergonomic safety methods and habits goes a long way towards protecting your employees. Workers can implement the strategies they learn into their unique routines and adjust as necessary, depending on what’s best for them. Providing clear standards ensures everyone is on the same page.
- Staff scheduling: When and how your employees work plays a significant role in their ergonomic safety. Rotate workers between tasks to avoid repetitive tasks that can cause muscle strain. You should minimize excess overtime when possible, schedule regular breaks and keep an adequate number of workers on hand to reduce individual workloads.
- Evaluate progress regularly: Workplace ergonomic safety is an ongoing process. Check in routinely to determine where your solutions have succeeded and areas you can work to improve next
Benefits of Ergonomic Safety
The advantages of implementing ergonomic safety measures at your business are endless — for you, your employees and your company. Check out these benefits and discover more when you begin applying ergonomic best practices at your workplace:
- Prevent MSDs: The clearest advantage of a safer, more comfortable workplace is fewer musculoskeletal disorders and related injuries. Employees will be less susceptible to painful, sometimes chronic conditions that may affect their work and lives.
- Avoid other injuries and accidents: When your employees are aware of ergonomic risks, their awareness expands to other potential hazards in the workplace. Mindful workers are more likely to stay on track and prevent accidents.
- Reduce costs: Preventing costly MSDs and downtime can significantly reduce your company’s expenses and improve cost savings. With the increased productivity that comes from happier workers, you’ll see an increased bottom line, too.
- Foster engagement and satisfaction among employees: A safer workplace is a happier workplace. Comfortable and safe employees will be more engaged with their work, especially if they feel they’ve played a part in improving the office’s ergonomic policies for everyone.
- Improve overall productivity: Healthy and comfortable workers who follow proper procedures can get more done. Ergonomics will give a boost to your output and overall productivity.
Why Is Ergonomic Safety Important?
Whether most of your employees work in an office, from home or at a job site, ergonomic safety has never been more essential. With workplace musculoskeletal disorders on the rise, it’s your job as an employer or safety manager to implement policies and procedures that keep your workers safe and comfortable.
Experts constantly develop new ergonomic safety practices based on the latest data to create better workspaces. With happier workers and a stronger business, your possibilities for growth are endless, thanks to ergonomics.
Purchase NASP’s Ergonomic Safety Course
If you’re looking to improve your company’s ergonomic safety and overall well-being, the National Association of Safety Professionals (NASP) is here to help. We offer workplace safety training for a wide range of industries, from construction and oil and gas to government agencies. Our professional certificates, consulting services and classroom, online and site-specific training will improve your employee safety in any environment.
Our Workplace Ergonomic Specialist (WES) course offers a thorough education on workplace ergonomic safety, common types of MSDs, identifying potential issues and risk factors, the importance of an ergonomics program and ways to implement successful and effective strategies. Purchase our WES course to get started, or contact NASP for more information today.