While it’s not the only purpose of ergonomics, injury reduction is a key reason for starting an ergonomics initiative. The following steps outline how to approach and develop a plan for reducing MSDs through ergonomics:
Step 1: Looking for signs that a problem exists.
The first step in any ergonomics-based solution is to find signs that indicate a problem exists. When the problem is musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), OSHA injury logs, workers compensation claims, insurance records and worker satisfaction indices offer measurable proof of a problem.
Step 2: Setting the stage for action.
Management commitment is essential to a successful program. Commitment by management provides the organizational resources and motivating force necessary to deal effectively with MSDs. Employee participation may take the form of direct or indirect input. A common form of participation is through a joint labor-management safety and health committee.
Step 3: Training.
Employees and management should be provided ergonomics training on common MSD hazards, signs and symptoms of MSDs and proper injury reporting. Management and employee groups should be trained in job analysis and control measures.
Step 4: Gathering and examining evidence.
The most detailed part of the process, a workplace analysis, involves a formal review of the existing condition and the data pertaining to the problem, and determining the desired outcomes of an ergonomics intervention. It starts with a discussion incorporating department heads, the ergonomics committee, the front line workers, the safety team, or any of a number of other groups who can offer insight into the situation.
In addition to the existing data, a fresh, detailed look at the workplace through field observations is key. Any number of tools exist to assist with this step — from detailed formulas for lifting or repetitive motions, to video tapes of workers performing the task. (See The Ergonomics Report, January 2004, for a look at performing a workplace analysis).
Step 5: Developing controls.
In ergonomics, a hierarchy of control methods is used, starting with engineering controls that physically change the task or the workplace, followed by administrative controls that include workplace policies or procedures intended to limit the amount of exposure to specific activities and finally behavior-based controls and personal protective equipment. It is always recommended that the task or workplace be modified (controlled) rather than attempting to modify the actions of the worker, although some worker-focused programs can be beneficial when used in conjunction with engineering controls. Remember that when relying strictly on a control method that is NOT an engineering control, that the hazard may still remain.
Step 6: Medical management.
Health care management focuses on the prevention of impairment and disability through early detection, prompt treatment and rational return to work policies. If an MSD-reduction initiative works as planned, little need for medical management should exist.
Step 7: Program evaluation.
After the program has been implemented, its progress and effectiveness should be reviewed and evaluated. Is the initiative working as planned? Are the workers satisfied with the improvement? How is it affecting injury rates and the company’s bottom line? Do additional improvements need to be made? An ergonomics intervention isn’t a one-time shot: it’s part of an overall program that continually strives to achieve its goals and make the workplace more effective, efficient and productive.
This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2004-02-01.