Ergo: Get the right mix of training, policy, technology

by on January 26, 2012 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: Workplace Safety Network
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If you’re concerned that you don’t quite have your ergonomics program down pat, take heart: Ergonomics is a young, inexact science.

There’s no “magic bullet” that will prevent musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), or any miracle cure – the equivalent of penicillin – that will quickly knock it out.

So safety directors like you often proceed by trial and error, cobbling together an ergonomics program based on MSD injuries and perceived hazards specific to their own facility and job requirements.

Problem: The trial and error approach can be expensive. It can take too long to “mature” and, even more troublesome, it can miss important ingredients because it relies too heavily on guesswork.

Better: To get the biggest bang for your ergo investment, compare your current program with the latest research, to see what’s working and what’s not.

What falls short
To begin with, the latest science shows that companies don’t recoup their investment in ergonomics programs if the program isn’t comprehensive enough:

  • Offering workers rest breaks. Rest breaks are a good thing. But rest breaks are only one part of an ergonomics program.
  • Training alone. Researchers found that the least effective method of preventing MSDs was offering training alone. That’s because training can go off the rails three ways:
      (1) Workers don’t know how to apply training that’s too general;
    1. (2) It’s too tool-specific or job-specific and workers don’t understand why they should make these small changes to how they do things;
      (3) Training cannot substitute for technology. For example, manual lifting, even correctly performed, will cause more MSD injuries than if workers use lifting equipment.
  • Adjustments to workstations. The science shows that most ergo-friendly workstations aren’t used properly unless workers are taught how to adjust them.

The investment goes to waste as workers use the settings from the last operator or choose what feels right to them – and ignore the science of correct positioning.

So what works? The latest research suggests that high-payoff ergo programs include the following characteristics:

1. Training is broad-based
Workers learn the big picture of MSDs as well as their job-specific requirements. They learn how to set up their ergo workstation and adjust it properly for their size and body type. And they understand that specific working techniques are part of a bigger injury-prevention plan.

Suggestions:

  • Give workers the fundamentals of good ergonomics – reasons, proper movement and balance, understanding center-of-gravity, reaching, and awkward, repetitive movements.
  • Give them specifics about their jobs. You may want to have work crews share their ideas (such as, what movements require too long a reach, or an awkward posture). Then work with your supervisors to create job- and task-specific solutions.

2. Change workstations
The highest performing ergonomics programs are those in which the company provides adequate technology and equipment when necessary.

Often the biggest results come when companies offer equipment or configuration changes – as long as workers know how to use and adjust the ergo equipment.

Example: Ergonomic chairs are a great idea for office workers, but they need to know the correct height of the chair, how to adjust it, the correct height for a computer screen or keyboard, and the correct sitting posture. Otherwise, workers will make assumptions that defeat the ergo design – and rob you of your investment.

3. Organization policy support
Even training and technology together don’t add up to a successful ergo program. For example, researchers found that in nursing homes, ceiling lifts combined with lift training didn’t work. Reason: Workers wouldn’t use the equipment often enough or follow the procedures.

They needed an external policy to motivate them to change. In this case, a “no-lift” policy that required the use of ceiling lifts.

At one company studied, the policy was enforced by supervisors. When workers saw that management was serious about enforcing the policy, their behavior changed. Ergo injuries dropped accordingly.

Companies with the most successful ergo programs have a policy that the organization expects workers to follow. It’s supported by senior management. And it contains provisions for enforcement.

Source: Benjamin Amick, scientific director, Institute for Work & Health, Toronto; Shirley Brewer, chemical loss control specialist, Chemplan, Inc., Sarasota.

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