Five Strategies to Improve Workplace Ergonomics

Aug. 21, 2019
Through these best practices, manufacturing organizations can significantly change the reduction and mitigation of MSDs, improve health outcomes, reduce costs and increase productivity.

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are common among all Americans; however, employees in manufacturing settings are especially vulnerable to developing these injuries due to a number of factors specific to their occupation. Heavy lifting, bending, awkward postures, reaching overhead, pushing or pulling heavy loads, and repetitive tasks are all risk factors, which increases the chance of injury on the job. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 41 out of every 10,000 manufacturing workers experience a musculoskeletal issue or disorder.

A Growing Issue

These injuries have a significant impact on workplace productivity, absenteeism and healthcare costs. Across all industries, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration estimates that employers spend up to $20 billion each year on direct costs related to MSDs, with indirect costs due lost productivity and turnover far exceeding that amount. Work-related MSDs are among the most frequently reported causes of lost or restricted work time.

Further, a 2017 analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation, which explored trends in the cost of treating diseases, found that MSDs were ranked among the leading contributors to overall health services spending growth. As additional evidence of the impact of this issue, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that among injuries and illnesses causing days away from work in manufacturing, MSDs accounted for 34 percent of the total cases for all workers.

Whether employees develop back pain, arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, rotator cuff injuries, or any number of other musculoskeletal disorders, it is critical that organizations take proactive steps to both prevent and mitigate these issues to preserve the health of their workforce and their bottom line. By improving ergonomics in the workplace, manufacturers can address many of the root causes of MSDs among their employees.

Utilizing Ergonomics to Reduce Risk

While the risks inherent in manufacturing facilities are not easy to mitigate, there are measures organizations can take to help protect their employees from developing MSDs and helping those with injuries return to work faster. To improve ergonomics within manufacturing facilities, here are few strategies and best practices to consider:

  1. Go beyond the standard assessment. Ensure that any workplace assessment not only takes into account the unique factors of the facility’s environment, but also the hazards specific to each employee’s role. While some employees may be standing on their feet all day, others may be lifting heavy objects or working in awkward positions. This should not be completed in a vacuum; it is critical to involve employees in this process to address the issues affecting each individual’s health and productivity. A comprehensive approach to the initial assessment will lay the foundation for implementing effective ergonomic improvements that make a positive impact.
  2. Select appropriate safety equipment. Based on the assessment, introduce and provide employees with suitable safety equipment that encourages safe postures, aids lifting heavy items and protects them from common musculoskeletal injuries. This could include, but is not limited to:
    1. Cushioned floor mats for those who stand for long periods
    2. Ergonomically designed chairs for those who are seated
    3. Carts or machinery to assist with moving heavy or cumbersome items
    4. Knee pads and similar items to reduce pressure if kneeling
  1. Take varying heights into account. Three employees performing the same job may be three vastly different heights, meaning it is unlikely that all of them are comfortable at their fixed workstations. Instead, they may be stooping or reaching repeatedly throughout the day, increasing the risk of developing a musculoskeletal disorder. Implementing height adjustable equipment when possible can ensure employees are working in a safe, comfortable posture, preventing injury. This could include adding stools, adjustable tables and similar fixtures that can compensate for employees’ diverse needs.
  2. Offer opportunities to mix it up. Spending too much time in one position, either sitting or standing, can lead to potential injury. Height adjustable workstations can also benefit employees by enabling them to alternate between sitting and standing throughout the day. Additionally, ergonomic chairs, apparatus that allow for leaning, and specialized stools that can adjust to support sitting or standing, are all great options that enable employees to minimize time in one position. Providing variety can reduce stress-related injuries. 
  3. Consistently communicate and educate.  Raising awareness of the risks among employees and reminding them to adjust repetitive movements, take breaks, use protective equipment, and avoid hazards can have a big impact on the number of incidents leading to injuries. While initial training is important, continuing to communicate this information through discussions with supervisors, posters, and other internal communications channels will keep this important information top of mind for employees. Introducing ergonomic equipment and other best practices into the workplace will only be effective if employees consistently utilize them correctly, and frequent outreach is critical to achieving this.

Implementing these strategies not only prevents new injuries from occurring, but can also support employees with existing MSDs, improving turnaround time to return to work and mitigating the otherwise detrimental effects on productivity and costs.

The Role of HR

Human resources professionals play a very important role in addressing MSDs in the workplace, especially in manufacturing settings, with key responsibilities including:

  • Coordinating worksite training that educates employees on reducing risk
  • Leading ergonomic assessments by the company’s health and safety units or external stakeholders
  • Instituting policies to support employees with MSDs and appropriate return to work guidelines
  • Liaising with the company’s worker’s compensation and medical benefits carriers, as well as occupational health providers and other involved parties
  • Guiding employees to appropriate resources to help prevent individual risk or treat existing MSDs

Through these best practices and more, manufacturing organizations can significantly move the needle on the reduction and mitigation of MSDs, improving health outcomes, reducing costs and increasing productivity.

Musculoskeletal disorders are a significant cost driver for employers in terms of both direct and indirect costs. Developing a comprehensive strategy to prevent and reduce MSDs and promoting workplace health is of benefit to employers and employees alike.

Dr. Raffi Terzian, M.D., MPH, Senior Vice President of Clinical Operations and Senior Medical Director at Health Advocate.

About the Author

Dr. Raffi Terzian, M.D., MPH

Dr. Raffi Terzian, M.D., MPH, Senior Vice President of Clinical Operations and Senior Medical Director at Health Advocate

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