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No pain, more gain with early ergonomics intervention

By Michelle Morra
| www.cos-mag.com

Ergonomists everywhere are sending the same message to employers: Call us sooner than later. It’ll cost you a lot less. Honest! Yet time and time again they’re called too late, when someone has been injured and the employer fears being in contravention of the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

In manufacturing as in all industry sectors in Canada, musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) represent a significant chunk of workers’ compensation claims. In Ontario, where manufacturing is the principal industry, they represent 42 per cent of all claims and result in 430,000 days lost a year, with staggering costs.

The problem with MSDs is that they’re insidious. People don’t always recognize what is causing the tingling in their hand or aching shoulder, and might not consider the job as a factor.

To drive the point home, Sandra Patterson, an ergonomist with Workplace Safety and Prevention Services, compares MSDs to more obvious hazards: “It’s easy to see a hazard when an electrical cord is on the floor,” she says. “But if your neck is in an awkward posture, you might not feel pain at first or make the connection with work.”

She encourages employees to speak up before an acute pain becomes chronic. “I’m not necessarily saying they should go off on comp. I’m just saying if you report that a cord is on the floor, why not report ‘this is an awkward posture for me to be in and there’s got to be a better way’?”

She says reluctance to report MSDs is a common barrier to improvement. One employee might insist he’s strong enough to lift something rather than complain that it’s too heavy. Another might fear complaining about discomfort if the other four people at the same job have no complaints. But ergonomics, Patterson stresses, is tailored to the individual. Workers come in different shapes and sizes with different lifestyles and preexisting conditions, and need to voice their concerns.

A workforce that’s in pain can’t be optimally productive. Here’s how to address the problem of musculoskeletal disorders for the good of the workers and the business:

Involve ergonomics at the planning/design stage. The time to bring in an ergonomist is when changing a line, introducing new processes and equipment, implementing a new product or procedure, or during quality events that aim to improve efficiencies, such as Six Sigma. Technologies such as AutoCAD drawings make it easier than ever to foretell and eliminate problems before a line is even built.

Here’s how Jane Sleeth, managing director of Optimal Performance Consultants, describes the ideal situation:

“While deciding what a new product would look like and what machines will be required to build it, we’ll sit there with them and ask questions like, ‘Will a human being be required to work on that?’ If they don’t know, we’ll go out on the floor and build a mock-up, assess it, pop that into the software and discover that only 25 per cent of males will be able to do that job. So we go back and change the weight of the box or the height to lift it, run the numbers again and see that 75 per cent of males and 25 per cent of females can safely do that job. So we design it that way. Then once the job is set up and we know it’s safe, we work with the engineer to write the standard operating procedure. There’s ongoing feedback on how to use the tool, with the employee participating the whole time — and it’s a lot less expensive.”

How often do employers actually involve ergonomists at an early stage? It’s hard to tell for sure, but ergonomists often see the alternative. A line is built, then someone notices that only workers who are six-foot-one can reach the part; or that there is no toe space at the conveyor, requiring workers to stand a few inches back, which puts more force on the back.

Repercussions inevitably snowball with work refusals or injuries, and the compensation board and government prevention and enforcement officers inspecting the work site.

Recognize hazards and address them early. The risk factors for musculoskeletal disorders are force, posture and repetition. Always consider all three when assessing a task or a workstation. If a tool makes a worker’s hand go numb, the problem will get worse, not better, unless it’s addressed. If someone’s back is sore, don’t just chock it up to age. Investigate, keeping those three factors in mind.

Implement the right controls. There are two main types of control for ergonomics:  engineering controls should come first, followed by administrative controls.

Ann Duffy, principal ergonomist with the Ontario Ministry of Labour, shares the example of an engineering control in food processing: “A sack of flour that weighs 80 lbs. is too heavy to be safely lifted. An engineering control might be a lift assist that places it on the skid and then places the skid on the shelf. Another would be a vacuum lift that lifts the sack from the top, moves it over to the hopper on a rail and then empties it into the hopper.”

As for administrative controls, they are essentially ways for workers to perform tasks more safely. In the same example, it could mean writing a procedure on how to lift sacks, specifying that two workers (not one) shall lift the sack off the skid and over to the shelf; and that the shelf must be on the second level, not at ground level.

One particularly important administrative control is “job enlargement” through job sharing or rotation. Duffy says that to be effective, rotation must ensure that the worker performs different tasks at the different workstations.

Sometimes companies only appreciate a solution when it’s gone. Sleeth’s team once instituted a rotation program at a company that makes and repairs pallets and skids, whereby each worker moved on to a different task every two hours. But when a new manager did away with job rotation, the result was a work refusal and scrutiny by the authorities. “They forgot about the human element, and now they have legal eyes on them,” Sleeth says. “And they’re starting over. Ergonomics at this phase is more expensive.”

Involve the workers. Workers often recognize hazards, but not all will say anything unless they’re asked. “I can’t do an assessment without the workers,” Patterson says. “They know the job best and they know what the issues are.”

Think big-picture. MSDs can affect anyone but are sometimes worse when people are out of shape to begin with, or fatigued, or have other stressors outside of work. Smokers, for example, have slower blood flow than non-smokers and are at greater risk of developing carpal tunnel syndrome; and people who already have aches and pains are more at risk of acute injuries like falls from ladders. So look beyond the green book. Look at the whole health and safety culture in the workplace.

Rethink the “cost” issue. Manufacturers are learning that the old “safety is a benefit, not a cost” adage is especially apparent when it comes to ergonomics. As Sleeth puts it: “Some have figured out that, hey, we can use this stuff to maximize efficiencies. It’s not just OH&S. It’s finding out what human capabilities are and then being able to maximize them.”

She says that business leaders who don’t respond to health and safety concerns are more likely to respond to a drop in productivity, or to dollars lost on scrapped parts resulting from human error. “As sad a statement as it is,” she says, “health and safety stats alone won’t be their number one reason for [investing in ergonomics].”

Patterson reminds employers that a worker suffering from aches and pains can’t possibly concentrate on the job and do it well. “By applying ergonomic principles, that’s what we’re trying to do,” she says. “Work smarter, not harder.” 

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