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The Importance of Ergonomics for the Safety Professional

Feb. 1, 2011
It is a new year and as a safety professional, you already have a full plate. Dealing with identifying risk, maintaining compliance and regulatory standards, developing training, keeping budgets and ergonomics too?

Believe it or not, ergonomics can make your job easier and keep your work force safer. Regardless of your industry or the size of your company, applied ergonomics can help you get a good night's sleep. Along with the satisfaction that your work force will be safe from hazards and ergonomics risk factors, your company's profits will stay with the company instead of being used to pay workers' compensation claims.

When safety is a value, rather than a priority, it's almost unspoken. It is an expectation from management, employees, vendors and the public at large. Safety is built into and becomes part of the corporate fabric, part of the company's DNA.

Ergonomics also must be incorporated and seen as a value. It needs to be built into a corporate culture and be integrated into everything any company does on a daily basis.

While applied ergonomics is a relatively new branch of science — it celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2009 — it relies on research carried out in many other older, established scientific areas, such as engineering, physiology and psychology.

Ergonomics got its start in the United States during World War II, when scientists designed advanced new systems without fully considering the people who would be using them. It gradually became clear that systems and products would have to be designed to take into account many human and environmental factors if they are to be used safely and effectively. This awareness of people's physical requirements resulted in the discipline of ergonomics. Some of the sciences that comprise ergonomics include biomechanics, engineering, anthropometry, physiology, biology, psychology and sociology.


Safety and ergonomics are both human factors sciences. Both play an important role in the success of a design or task. They can work synergistically to enhance each other, improving safety and productivity and reducing employer costs.

Private industry employers spent an average of $27.42 per hour worked for total employee compensation in December 2009, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported. Wages and salaries averaged $19.41 per hour worked and accounted for 70.8 percent of these costs, while benefits averaged $8 and accounted for the remaining 29.2 percent. Total compensation costs for state and local government workers averaged $39.60 per hour worked in December 2009. Total employer compensation costs for civilian workers, which include private industry and state and local government workers, averaged $29.37 per hour worked in December 2009.

Injuries to the back generate the highest frequency of disabling injuries. A 2005 report in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) estimated Americans spend $86 billion a year on treating neck and back pain, probably more than any other ailment.

Back pain often is first noticed as ache, soreness, tension and tightness. When a spasm occurs, it can range from moderate to overwhelming pain. Untreated or mistreated, the problem can worsen or persist for months or even years. MSDs are a major problem, so big that OSHA wants separate recording column for MSDs. For the employee, they cause personal suffering and loss of income. For the employer, they reduce business efficiency. For government, they increase social security costs.

Ergonomic disorders are the fastest growing category of work-related illness. According to the most recent statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, they account for 56-63 percent of illnesses reported to OSHA.

Ergonomic-related injuries and illnesses often strike in work environments not associated with large numbers of workplace injuries, like the office environment. For example, if an employee is able to type 40 words per minute, he or she presses 12,000 keys per 8-hour day. Approximately 8 ounces of force is necessary to depress one key. Almost 16 tons of force will be exercised by his or her fingers each day. The fingers of typists whose speed is 60 words per minute exert up to 25 tons of pressure each day.

The office workplace has other musculoskeletal disorders, including carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, tenosynovitis and myositis. These conditions affect 7 percent of the population of the United States. More than 8 million people are affected by carpal tunnel syndrome each year. Surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome is the second-most common type of musculoskeletal surgery, with well over 230,000 procedures performed annually. Only 23 percent of all carpal tunnel syndrome patients return to their previous professions following surgery, according to the Bureau of Labor & Statistics and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and the surgery has a 57 percent failure rate.


Both safety and ergonomics risk assessments can be used identify workplace hazards and who is at risk, and determine adequate preventive measures and risk monitoring. Each type of assessment should be based on a holistic approach and the total load on the body should be considered.

There is no single factor that causes musculoskeletal disorders (MSD). For example, manual handling alone rarely is the cause of back pain; there are many other factors that may contribute to its development, such as stress, force, posture, vibration, cold and work organization. Safety professionals currently conduct job safety analyses, so why not assess the ergonomics risk factors at the same time?

It is very important to assess the full range of ergonomic MSD risks and to address them in a comprehensive way. The risk assessments must be completed by a set of appropriate actions targeted to elimination, where possible, or reduction of the risks to the human musculoskeletal systems, as well as eliminate or reduce safety hazards. When deciding on preventive actions, a wide range of possible changes should be considered.

Determining work tasks is one of the most important requirements to reduce the physical demands of the job by decreasing the levels of force, repetition, awkward postures and/or vibration. Job descriptions are necessary to understand how tasks impact the worker: which body part is used, whether right or left side, cycle times, weights, reaches, etc. This is how safety managers and ergonomists will determine which part of the task has to change. This often necessitates the use of new tools or working methods, adopting best practices and training the employees on the new changes.

Once a job description is created that clearly outlines the demands of the job, any ergonomic or safety risks can be addressed in a systematic and cogent fashion. Changes might necessitate decreasing the levels of force, repetition, awkward postures and/or vibration. It may be possible to reallocate tasks between workers to reduce repeated motions, forceful hand exertions and prolonged bending and twisting.

Workers must be trained to increase their awareness of ergonomic factors and to recognize and avoid unsafe working conditions. Workers also must be convinced why it is important to pay attention to prevention and be educated about the benefits — in terms of reduced pain and discomfort — of adopting good practices and work methods.

On an organizational level, practical solutions can include developing appropriate work/rest ratios to reduce fatigue, organizing breaks and rotating jobs. At the corporate level, adoption of policies to develop a strong safety/ergonomic culture should be promoted to gain higher top-level commitment and involvement in identifying and controlling MSD risk factors, and to improve safety and surveillance measures.


The costs of workplace safety measures result in a savings of 2.7 times the investment, according to a recent Japanese report by the Japan Industrial Safety and Health Association (JISHA).

The report found that the cost of safety investments for hardware (equipment, machinery, facilities, etc.) and safety activities are paid back and rewarded through the reduction of occupational accidents (2.3 times return on the investment) and improved productivity (0.4 times return on the investment). The report also calculated some estimates of potential savings at the level of the Japanese national economy, which in theory could be obtained if the savings at the company level were projected at the macro-economic level.

These savings amount to an estimated $107 billion, of which an estimated $62 billion was the result of the reduction in the risk of occupational accidents and an estimated $45 billion was the result of improved productivity gains. The total saving of $107 billion corresponds to 2.2 percent of the GDP of Japan.

A strong safety culture boosts productivity, employee morale and employee retention.

A strong ergonomics integration prevents injuries and increases productivity. Together, they make the workplace safer and reduce costs.

Cynthia Roth is founder and CEO of Ergonomic Technologies Corp. and is a member of EHS Today's editorial advisory board. She was the first woman elected chairperson of the ASSE Foundation Board and, in 2010, was named to ASSE's list of 100 Women — Making a Difference in Safety.

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