Managing Health: Perceived Trends in Ergonomics

Sept. 1, 2009
A perception survey and interviews of safety professionals reveals how they feel about ergonomics in the workplace.

A recent survey of safety professionals about ergonomics, training, the effect an ergonomics standard could have on ergonomic injuries and other questions revealed some interesting and surprising answers.

Ergonomic injuries, commonly known as musculoskeletal disorders (MSD), are injuries that involve the muscles, spinal disks, tendons, joints, ligaments and nerves. These types of injuries can range from very minor all the way to totally debilitating.

According to the United States Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS), musculoskeletal disorders accounted for 29 percent of all workplace injuries that required days away from work in 2007. Although this number is fairly significant, it is down from 2006, when ergonomic injuries totaled 30 percent of all workplace injuries resulting in days away from work.

Several industries have encountered major reductions in ergonomic recordable injuries. BLS reports that the mining industry dropped its ergonomic-related incident rate by 55 percent, and the construction industry dropped its ergonomic incident rate by 16 percent.

The study population for this survey included safety professionals from all over the United States, in many different industries. The formal interviews were done with safety and health professionals from several states and companies that were contacted by the author and agreed to be interviewed on their personal perceptions of ergonomics in the workplace. There were 45 total surveys completed and five formal interviews conducted to develop the data represented in this article.

Training was the first issue addressed with the interviews and surveys. The results showed a significant percentage (73.3 percent) of individuals have received some formal ergonomics training. This data suggests that ergonomics has its place in industry, and universities and companies alike find value in formal ergonomic training.

When respondents were asked about the benefit of the adoption of an ergonomics standard, the results were somewhat surprising. There was a clear division between the information provided in the interviews and the surveys completed. The survey results showed that 46.7 percent of the study population believed an ergonomics standard would be beneficial in decreasing ergonomic injuries, while 35.6 percent were neutral on the subject.

All of the safety professionals interviewed showed a much different opinion on the matter. One safety professional stated, “No, the work force wouldn't really benefit from an ergonomics standard. The standard that was issued in 2001 and subsequently rescinded is still enforced today through the general duty clause. Creating a new standard may make the requirements more clear, but otherwise they would not force companies to do more than what they currently have to do through the general duty clause.” The individuals who were interviewed all believed that it isn't necessary to adopt a standard specifically targeted at ergonomics.

Injuries and costs related to ergonomic issues weigh very heavily on safety professionals who took the survey. The data collected was as expected; results from the survey showed that 80 percent of the respondents have documented injuries resulting from ergonomic issues. Of this 80 percent, 46.2 percent reported that ergonomic injuries accounted for between 1 percent and 10 percent of their injuries for 2008.

As far as cost goes, 84.5 percent of those surveyed believe that it is cost effective to address ergonomic issues. Interviews also pointed in the same direction, all aiming towards the cost effectiveness of correcting ergonomic issues in the workplace.

Those safety professionals were asked how their perception of ergonomics has changed since starting their careers. The entire study population interviewed believed there has been a change for the good in the world of ergonomics.

One individual said, “Departments are more willing to spend money to prevent ergonomic injuries in the office, manufacturing, laboratory and warehouse settings rather than paying money reactively after someone has become injured.”

Collecting data from various sources proved to be a very good way of combining ideas about the subject of ergonomics. It is safe to say that based on results collected in the survey as well as the interviews, a trend shows that ergonomics definitely is a primary concern of a majority of the participating safety professionals. The concern seems to come out of an increased knowledge of true ergonomic issues, as well as the cost savings from fewer injuries in the workplace resulting from ergonomic problems.

In an informal conversation on the topic of ergonomics, Gordon Wall, corporate safety director of John Carlo Inc., suggested a simplistic way of dealing with ergonomic issues.

“There are three key points to ergonomics: stress, repetition and position,” Wall explained. “Break any one of these links and you will not have an ergonomics issue remaining.”

After Wall put it into perspective, it is easier to see the whole ergonomics picture. Although some ergonomic issues require more complicated solutions, when initially dealing with an ergonomic issue, try his simple method first.

Benjamin Treppa is a recent graduate of the Occupational Safety and Health program at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich. While at Oakland University, he pursued many areas of research including ergonomics, biosafety and industrial hygiene. He currently is employed in Auburn Hills, Mich., as a safety facilitator.

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