Delia E. Treaster, Ph.D., CPE, Ergonomic Technical Advisor
In recognition of National Ergonomics Month, this blog is part two of a two-part series focusing on ergonomics in the workplace.
In our recent blog we talked about how participatory ergonomics is effective in reducing overexertion injuries. Participatory ergonomics is a long-term investment. It takes time to develop and train an in-house team to develop sustainable solutions to reduce injuries. Some companies may be tempted to use “new” approaches instead of investing in the lengthy but more effective participatory ergonomics process.
Pre-employment testing, athletic trainers, or worksite exercise programs may initially seem to be reasonable ways to reduce musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). The problem with these approaches is that they focus on the worker instead of the job. Hiring a young, strong person to do a tough job, teaching workers the “proper lifting technique,” or using exercise programs to “warm-up” workers prior to starting work may provide an initial benefit but will fail long term because they do not reduce the physical demands of the job. For example, pre-employment testing attempts to select the right person for the job. The weaknesses of this approach are twofold:
1. The pool of potential candidates continues to shrink. As the average age of workers continues to trend upward, there are fewer and fewer young people who have the desire and ability to do physically demanding work.
2. Assuming there are enough people who can do those physically demanding jobs, what happens when they get hurt? A worker who can do the job easily at age 20 may not be able to do it as easily at age 30 or 35. Aging alone brings many changes to the human body. Tendons become stiffer and lose elasticity, making them more vulnerable to tears. Muscles become weaker, reaction time becomes slower, and injuries take longer to heal. If the physical demands of the job have not changed, workers performing the job may get hurt as they grow older.
Onsite exercise programs and athletic trainers suffer from the same weakness. With the job itself unchanged, the risk factors for injuries are not removed and the chance for MSDs remains.
Opioids and MSDs
Workers who suffer from long-term pain, such as chronic back pain, may resort to painkillers like prescription opioids. In the U.S., 136 people die every day from opioid overdoses. From 1999-2019, nearly half a million lost their lives to this modern-day scourge1.
The role that work-related musculoskeletal injuries play in the opioid epidemic is rarely recognized. Fifty-seven percent of people who die from opioid fatalities have had at least one workplace MSD2. One study identified construction, farming, and material movers as the occupations with the highest rate of opioid-related overdose deaths3.
Prescription painkillers are frequently used to allow workers to continue working following an injury. But even the short-term use of opioid painkillers can lead to addiction, with the risk of addiction increasing after only five days on opioids4. Ergonomic interventions can play an important part in the fight against opioid addiction by reducing the risk of on-the-job injuries.
New technologies are constantly developing and evolving. From the shift from mainframe to small personal computers in the 1980’s to the advent of artificial intelligence, new technologies will find their way into occupational jobs. Some of these new technologies, such as industrial exoskeletons, promise to make jobs easier to do and reduce the risk of injuries.
Other technologies may seem beneficial at first glance but prove to be ineffective in the long run. Wearable sensors which warn workers when they are in poor postures would appear to be a good way to prevent injuries. After all, proper biomechanics is important to prevent back injuries when moving heavy loads, so what’s wrong with wearable sensors that detect poor postures? The shortfall of wearable sensors is that the warnings can’t help if the worker is forced to use poor postures by the demands of the job itself. Imagine, for example, the challenge of using “proper lifting techniques” to move a patient from a bed to a wheelchair. The size and shape of the patient, the need to lift carefully, and the physical space where lifting occurs are all factors that dictate the worker’s posture. Focusing on the worker’s postures is shortsighted.
Instead of choosing the right workers to do the job or coaching the worker to use good posture, ergonomics focuses on changing the job to eliminate the risk factors for injury. This will protect ALL workers. Reducing the physical demands of the job is a time-proven method for reducing work-related MSD injuries and controlling workers’ compensation costs.
A BWC ergonomist can help you develop an in-house ergonomics team that can address problem jobs. Reach out to one of our BWC safety consultants or call 1-800-644-6292. Don’t forget to take advantage of our other safety services as well. The Division of Safety and Hygiene offers a wide range of services for all industries at no additional cost to employers, including safety education and training and the BWC safety and video library.
2 Cheng M, Sauer B, Johnson E, Porucznik C, Hegmann K. Comparison of opioid‐related deaths by work‐related injury. Am J Ind Med. 2012;56(3):308‐316.
3 Hawkins, Roelofs, Laing, & Davis (2019). Opioid‐related overdose deaths by industry and occupation—Massachusetts, 2011‐2015. American Journal of Industrial Medicine. 62(10):815-825. https://doi.org/10.1002/ajim.23029.