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Ergonomics: Starting a Program

An effective ergonomics program can prevent a lot of those small and large workplace injuries that can be so painful (and debilitating) for employees and expensive for employers.

Strain and sprain injuries are something all employers face. There is the employee who strains her back while working the cash register. There is the new hire that strains his shoulder while lifting the heavy piece of pipe to show that he is a hard worker. There is the older guy that everyone likes who is not really sure how it happened but his wrist is “acting up.”

It is common to hear people both in operations and safety say, “How could that have been prevented?” The answer sometimes is easier than it seems.

Implementing an effective ergonomics program is the answer. Sometimes there will be judgment calls that are opinion-based, and it is a long-term commitment that might not be immediately reflected in your injury rates. To sustain long-term results, you need buy-in from operations leadership for both funding and for establishing a culture where ergonomics is important.

Getting Started on an Ergonomics Program

To get started, you need to discover the areas/job tasks in your facility that produce the most injuries. As the old saying goes, you need to go hunting with a rifle, not a shotgun.

Conduct trending based on the category of incidents you are experiencing at your locations. In what department/area are the incidents occurring? What are the tasks the injured workers were performing when the injuries occurred? What is the most frequently injured body part?

Look at the employees themselves: Are the injuries occurring with new hires or tenured employees? Are the employees younger or older? Male or female? Are the injuries happening during the day or at night? If you do not have this information readily available, start tracking it on a spreadsheet now! This data will be like gold once you identify the changes you would like to make.

Observe the Areas That Are Trending

Now that you have identified the areas (or started collecting the data), it is time to hit the field. Walk through the work areas where the incidents are occurring and perform observations and talk to employees.

Keep your eyes open for awkward or unnatural postures. Are employees bending at the waist, twisting their backs, lifting over their head, reaching far from their bodies, etc.? If so, you have found a great starting point.

Once you have completed your initial observations, it is time to talk to the real expert, the employee doing the job. Provide him or her with a brief background of what you are doing. Be polite, respectful, and let them know that you care about the health and safety of everyone in the facility.

Ask them broad and open-ended questions to get their feedback. Do they ever feel muscle soreness during work or at the end of the day? Do they have any aches and pains that occur at work? What do they think causes this?

Finally, ask their opinions about how the issues can be fixed. Most people have suggested solutions and are willing to tell you. All you have to do is show respect and ask the right questions.

Manager Buy-In and Feedback

There is one of you and there are many supervisors/leaders/stewards, etc. Find a few who are safety conscious and explain to them that you are building an ergonomics improvement process. Explain to them what ergonomics, strain/sprains and injury prevention programs are about. Explain how body postures can impact ergonomics and discuss the leading causes of ergonomic injuries at your facilities.

Finally, ask that they keep notes of their observations over the next week and e-mail them to you. After you review their notes, give them a call to discuss their findings, then add their observations to your own. These observations and discussions can help you build your case to upper management on the need for more expansive ergonomics training for all supervisors.

The Pieces of the Ergonomics Puzzle

It is time to trend again. Match up any information that fits together. For example, the No. 1 injury at your facility is a lumbar strain. An employee admitted he experiences back pain and the task he experiences the most discomfort with is bending low to pull heavy boxes out of the lower storage area.

You observed several employees perform this task and viewed unnatural postures. Front-line supervisors had this listed as one of the ergonomic improvement areas. The majority of the trending you conduct will not be this easy but your highest risk hazards should match in some of these categories. Try to identify as many hazardous tasks as possible.

Prioritize the Risks

Take the tasks you identified and list them in numerical order from the highest frequency of risk to the lowest. Take the same list and order it from the highest severity of injury to the lowest. Are any of the Top 3 the same in both lists?

If yes, you have a clear starting point for your business case. If not, you will have to use your best judgment whether to start with frequency or severity. I typically start with frequency (the injuries that are happening now) but always come back to severity (preventing the most serious injuries from occurring).

Building your Business Case

Do your homework! Upper management has enough to worry about besides solving your problems for you. You need to come with the problem and explain why it needs corrected, but you also should provide solutions to correct it. My first step is always a quick Internet search for processes/equipment with the word ergonomics. Do not reinvent the wheel, as someone else may have developed a solution for the problem already. The next place to look is your industry-specific web sites or general safety web sites such as www.ehstoday.com and many others.

If your company has an engineering department, talk to your in-house engineers. Even if they are not aware of specific solutions, they still can provide you with additional leads. Lastly, if you truly have looked hard and cannot find an appropriate solution, call an industry consultant. Often, these companies provide free initial assessments in return for a contract to implement the solutions and provide training if you decide to move forward.

The Big Meeting

Schedule a meeting with the person who is the highest on the corporate ladder with whom it is appropriate for you to meet. Ideally, this person will be able to give you a yes/no decision on your recommendations. If not, you risk your work not being a top priority for the person who goes to get the answer.

Prepare the information in an easy to understand and concise manner. Use photographs for everything you can. Show a picture of the employee performing the awkward posture, state the hazards/need for change and show a picture of the solution outlining the benefits.

You need to be prepared that not all of your recommendations will be implemented. Remember, “no” is not no forever. Keep the recommendation in mind as time goes on and revisit it when appropriate. If your company experiences several related incidents, bring this recommendation to corporate managers again. You already have the data and solution and operations may now view this recommendation in a different light.

Continuous Improvement

Perform this process at least annually and anytime there is a task or workplace change. If you are successful in implementing a few recommendations, the next step is to build an ergonomics culture. Explain to the decision maker the benefits of having all of the front-line supervisors trained. Create a basic overview focusing on the greatest risks at your facility and have it added to the annual employee training. Take this same training, modify it as necessary and have it incorporated into new-hire training.

Ergonomic improvements do not happen overnight. When you develop a plan of action and execute it, you gain more and more results. If your company experiences sprain/strain injuries, implementing ergonomic improvements is one of the best steps you can take to improve your safety program.

About the Author: Brian Sullivan, CSP is with Strata Worldwide. He can be reached at [email protected].

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