Workplace Ergonomics 101

A Safety Manager’s Guide to Ergonomics at Work


Ergonomics is the science of designing the workplace, keeping in mind the capabilities and limitations of the worker. Poor worksite design leads to fatigued, frustrated and hurting workers. This rarely leads to the most productive worker. More likely, it leads to a painful and costly injury, lower productivity and poor product quality.

 
A systematic ergonomics improvement process removes risk factors that lead to musculoskeletal injuries and allows for improved human performance and productivity.

By making improvements to the work process, you are removing barriers to maximum safe work performance. You are providing your workers with a job that is within their body’s capabilities and limitations. And (as you’ll see throughout this series) you’ll be contributing to your company’s bottom line.

Done well, an ergonomics improvement process can be a key contributor to your company’s competitiveness in the marketplace and provide a better work experience for your people.

But where do you get started?

What are other companies doing with respect to ergonomics and what do their results look like? How can you find the time and resources to execute this process at your facility?

These are some of the questions you may be asking about ergonomics. We’ve put together this 8-part tutorial to help you answer these questions (and more) and to help you get your ergonomics process off the ground.
 

Workplace Ergonomics 101

Ready to get started? Here is your free, 8-part workplace ergonomics tutorial.

Injury Prevention and Wellness Through Ergonomic Design

By definition, an ergonomically inefficient job is outside the human body’s capabilities and limitations. This means there are ergonomic risk factors present that contribute to musculoskeletal injuries and disorders.

When a worker is regularly performing a job outside their body’s capabilities and limitations, it begins to create a muscle imbalance — their body simply cannot recover fast enough, causing fatigue to outrun recovery. If left uncorrected, this muscle imbalance progresses into a musculoskeletal injury / disorder (MSD).

Progression of Musculoskeletal Disorder (MSD)

When a worker is asked to do work that is outside his body’s capabilities and limitations, he is being asked to put his musculoskeletal system at risk. In these situations, an objective evaluation of the workstation design tells us the worker’s recovery system will not be able to keep up with the fatigue that will be caused by performing the job. The evaluation will tell us that ergonomic risk factors are present, the worker is at risk of developing a musculoskeletal imbalance and a musculoskeletal disorder is an imminent reality.

Ergonomic Risk Factors

There are three primary ergonomic risk factors.

1. High task repetition. Many work tasks and cycles are repetitive in nature, and are frequently controlled by hourly or daily production targets and work processes. High task repetition, when combined with other risks factors such high force and/or awkward postures, can contribute to the formation of MSD. A job is considered highly repetitive if the cycle time is 30 seconds or less.

2. Forceful exertions. Many work tasks require high force loads on the human body. Muscle effort increases in response to high force requirements, increasing associated fatigue which can lead to MSD.

3. Repetitive or sustained awkward postures. Awkward postures place excessive force on joints and overload the muscles and tendons around the effected joint. Joints of the body are most efficient when they operate closest to the mid-range motion of the joint. Risk of MSD is increased when joints are worked outside of this mid-range repetitively or for sustained periods of time without adequate recovery time.

Exposure to these workplace risk factors puts workers at a higher level of MSD risk. It’s common sense: high task repetition, forceful exertions and repetitive/sustained awkward postures fatigue the worker’s body beyond their ability to recover, leading to a musculoskeletal imbalance and eventually an MSD.

The goal of the ergonomics improvement process is to identify ergonomic risk factors and put control measures in place to reduce or eliminate ergonomic risk factors altogether.

Recommended Ergonomic Assessment Tools

Conducting objective ergonomic assessments allows you to quantify ergonomic risk factors, determine if control measures should be put in place and prioritize jobs for improvement.

Here are our favorite ergonomic assessment tools. We’ve created step-by-step guides to lead you through conducting the evaluations and provided all of the tools, spreadsheets, calculators and checklists you’ll need.

Ergonomic Control Measures

Putting control measures in place reduce injury risk. Ergonomics opportunities should be systematically identified and reduced through ergonomic controls. There are two broad types of ergonomic controls.

Engineering Controls eliminate or reduce awkward postures with ergonomic modifications that seek to maintain joint range of motion to accomplish work tasks within the mid-range of motion positions for vulnerable joints. Proper ergonomic tools should be utilized that allow workers to maintain optimal joint positions.

Administrative Controls include work practice controls, job rotation and counteractive stretch breaks.

Work Practice Controls – Work procedures that consider and reduce awkward postures should be implemented. In addition, workers should be trained on proper work technique and encouraged to accept their responsibility to use their body properly and to avoid awkward postures whenever possible.

Job Rotation – Job rotation and job task enlargement is a way to reduce repeated and sustained awkward postures that can lead to MSD.

Counteractive Stretch Breaks – Implement rest or stretch breaks to provide an opportunity to counteract any repeated or sustained awkward postures and allow for adequate recovery time.

The Ergonomics Improvement Process

We cannot stress enough that it is an ergonomics improvement process, not an ergonomics improvement program. Identifying and removing risk is never a finished activity, and a process mindset that is hungry for continuous improvement is key to the overall success and sustainability of your ergonomics initiatives.

Also worth noting is that ergonomics is not just about conducting ergonomic assessments — it’s about making ergonomic improvements. All too often we see companies rush to try and conduct ergonomic assessments without a plan in place to make actual improvements to the workplace.

Ergonomic assessments are a good first step. They will provide you the data you need to prioritize jobs for improvement. But don’t stop there! Completed ergonomic improvements that are measured for their effectiveness are where the real gains are made.

Workplace Ergonomics Improvement Process

Here is a deeper dive into the ergonomics improvement process we implement for clients:

Step 1: Prioritize Jobs for Ergonomic Analysis
This prioritized list should be developed by the ergonomics team based on an initial facility tour, review of MSD history and data collected by employee surveys.

Step 2: Conduct Ergonomic Analysis
This analysis will objectively measure risk for each job in the workplace and help you develop an ergonomic opportunity list.

Step 3: Develop an Ergonomic Opportunity List
Developing an ergonomic opportunity list allows you to prioritize company resources in order to effectively and efficiently reduce risk by putting the appropriate controls in place.

Step 4: Determine Best Solution with Team Approach
A multi-disciplinary team should be involved in determining the best controls for implementation.

Step 5: Obtain Final Approval and Implement Solution
If the improvement requires a significant capital expenditure, cost-justify the solution to gain approval.

Step 6: Evaluate the Ergonomic Improvement
Once improvements are in place, close the loop on the project by evaluating the ergonomic improvement and measuring its effectiveness.

Other Helpful Ergonomics Tutorials:

Additional Workplace Ergonomics Resources

Download the free ergonomics tools we’ve made available on our website: