Ergonomics is important. Many people may have a general idea of what the word means, but the details of ergonomics are less well known. In the simplest of terms, ergonomics is the practice of adapting jobs and job duties to a person’s body, rather than the other way around, to prevent musculoskeletal disorders. Equipment and tools, as well as special training, can be classified as ergonomics.
What are Musculoskeletal Disorders?
Musculoskeletal disorders affect muscles, ligaments, nerves, and other connective tissues in the body. The most common examples are carpel tunnel syndrome, tendinitis, and back injuries. All musculoskeletal disorders have different causes and manifestations. Ergonomics typically focuses on preventing workplace injuries, but musculoskeletal disorders can occur in any setting. Heavy lifting and repetitive movements are the most common causes of musculoskeletal disorders in the workplace. Ergonomic modifications to workplace processes can prevent these disorders.
To prevent injury, anyone engaging in heavy lifting or repetitive movement should understand and implement ergonomic principles. Some ergonomic recommendations only apply to certain occupations, but most apply to any industry. The basic principles of ergonomics are:
- Good posture
- Keep workspaces tidy to prevent falls
- Lift properly
- Plan workspaces and workflows with ergonomics in mind
- Carry items in the power zone (between mid-chest and mid-thigh)
- Items to be carried should have proper handles
- Push instead of pull whenever possible
- Rotate tasks (after addressing all other ergonomic issues)
Ergonomic Risk Factors
By recognizing ergonomic risk factors in the workplace, employees can stop musculoskeletal injuries before they happen. Employees who engage in repetitive motion tasks should look for ergonomic solutions. These tasks include typing on a keyboard, cutting hair, or pressing buttons on machinery. Heavy lifting is also a risk factor. People who carry or move heavy boxes could be at risk for musculoskeletal disorders. Bad posture can also cause issues. Hunching over a keyboard all day is an ergonomic risk factor.
Carpal tunnel syndrome is one of the most common repetitive motion injuries. This disease affects the wrists and is common in many industries. Cooks, construction workers, and anyone who works at a keyboard are at risk for carpal tunnel syndrome. The majority of worker’s compensation requests are for carpal tunnel. The cost of those claims, plus loss of productivity when workers take off time to heal from an injury, means carpal tunnel syndrome is very expensive. Ergonomic solutions can help reduce the cost burden of disorders like carpal tunnel syndrome. Desks and chairs should be adjustable, so equipment is always at the right height for the user. The angle of the wrist should not be too high or too low. Old keyboards should be replaced with newer, more ergonomic ones.
Whenever possible, machines should do the heavy lifting instead of people. Forklifts, pallet jacks, and hand trucks can save workers time, effort, and injuries. These tools are investments that pay for themselves. When tools cannot be used for heavy lifting, other devices can help prevent injury. Ergonomic belts and straps are specially designed to protect the wearer.
As with carpal tunnel syndrome, awkward posture can be solved by adjustable equipment in many cases. Ergonomic training can also make a big difference. Workers who are trained in proper posture when sitting and lifting are less likely to develop musculoskeletal disorders. Employees should take short, regular breaks to walk around and stretch. Whenever possible, co-workers should rotate tasks. By switching up movements, employees give their bodies a break.
Many types of ergonomic equipment help protect workers. Ergonomic options include
- Mouses and mouse pads
- Adjustable and standing desks
- Antimicrobial equipment
- Anti-glare screen covers
- Cushioned mats for long periods of standing
- Lifting belts
Sometimes people may need to get creative to avoid injury. For example, sitting on yoga balls instead of office chairs can be a creative ergonomic solution.
OSHA is the government organization responsible for workplace safety in the United States. Because they are invested in keeping workers healthy, they encourage workplace ergonomics. Although OSHA doesn’t require employers to provide ergonomic equipment, it does state that a workplace must be free from ergonomic hazards. That means employers need to make sure that employees have the necessary tools and equipment to work safely.
Occupational therapists specialize in ergonomics. They’re experts in physiology, so they know the human body and how different movements affect it. The first step for any occupational therapist is to evaluate. These practitioners analyze the occupational risks a person faces, then make recommendations. Even though they focus on physiology, occupational therapists are trained to include behavioral and psychological factors in their evaluation. That means that their ergonomic solutions may include training and behavior modification as well as equipment changes.
Healing from Musculoskeletal Disorders
People who develop musculoskeletal disorders have options for dealing with the pain most conditions cause. Sometimes simple methods like applying ice, topical creams, and NSAID pain relievers are enough. If over-the-counter pain relief doesn’t work, patients can get professional help. Physical therapists specialize in helping people with musculoskeletal disorders, as do chiropractors. A primary care provider can recommend the best professional for musculoskeletal pain treatment.