Ergonomic hazards are factors in the workplace that can harm the natural body.
These hazards lead to issues like musculoskeletal disorders without the proper intervention, and workplaces should address any signs of an ergonomic hazard.
In this article, we dive deeper into what ergonomic hazards are and explain how you can identify and rectify these issues.
Breaking Down Ergonomic Hazards
We live in a world that we have manufactured to fit our needs. One way that we do this is by creating tools, furniture, and systems to accommodate our daily work, regardless of the nature of the tasks.
The issue arises when these accommodations do not support our natural body, or when they actively cause harm.
These ergonomic hazards relate directly to the body, primarily to musculoskeletal disorders.
Understanding what ergonomic features and musculoskeletal disorders give you a clearer idea of what ergonomic hazards are, how they are unsafe, and why it is so important to identify and address them.
The term “ergonomic” refers to the intersection of the manufactured environment and the natural body.
Ergonomic features are those that we design to accommodate this intersection, and they include:
- Workplace design and arrangement
- Physical processes
The goal of ergonomic features is to pave the way for body movement, position, and interaction that is safe and efficient.
Some of these features are obvious and marketed as such, including ergonomic chairs, mice, and keyboards.
Where we often fail to recognize the need for these features is in outdated materials, systems, and arrangements.
Approaching the issue from every angle is essential for a safe and productive environment.
Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSDs):
Musculoskeletal disorders, commonly referred to as MSDs, are chronic injuries of the soft tissues (muscles, tendons, ligaments, nerves, joints, and blood vessels).
Regardless of how in shape someone is, their body has specific limits.
Even someone in top form will be ill-affected by the cumulative strains that injure their body, even if it’s just taking baby steps to a chronic condition. Common examples include:
- Rheumatoid Arthritis
- Trigger finger
- Bone fractures
- Carpal tunnel syndrome
- Muscle strains/injuries (particularly in the lower back)
It is important to prevent abuse and misuse of the body.
These MSDs can follow a person through the remainder of their life, affecting their quality of life and potentially leading to greater issues.
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Ergonomic Hazards and Safety:
The severity of these issues depends on many factors, including:
- Exposure over time
- Other environmental factors
- How the issues are addressed
Most of these problems don’t start at the first instance of muscle strain.
It takes repetitive stress to cause these injuries, and failing to recognize the leading ergonomic hazards is the reason these are the most common workplace injury.
While the issue is not addressed by ergonomic function alone, identifying hazards reduces fatigue and strain that exacerbates the issues and leads to fatigue.
Preventing muscular imbalances and fatigue limits factors that contribute to injury.
Identifying hazards in your workplace will help you remove them and create a safer environment that protects employees and may even improve productivity over time.
Identifying Ergonomic Hazards and Safety Concerns
To identify ergonomic hazards in your workplace:
- Understand root risk factors
- Look at the most common areas of issue
- Run through a checklist of identifying questions
As technology moves forward, we can better identify issues and their causes.
Staying up to date on ergonomic advancements helps you take quick action with new knowledge.
The most common risk factors that lead to ergonomic hazards include:
- Forceful activities
- Heavy lifting
- Pushing or pulling
- Carrying items
- Gripping items
- Holding an awkward posture (especially for long periods)
- Repetitive activities
- Working overhead
- Stress through contact
- Stress from vibration
This doesn’t mean that your job should avoid these tasks outright, but anything involving these actions deserves a closer look.
Implementing safety measures lessens the severity of these tasks, leading to safer working conditions.
Common Places to Evaluate:
When looking for ergonomic hazards and safety concerns, look to your workspace, processes, and employee workload.
The workspace should be designed in such a way that it does not make it difficult or dangerous for an employee to complete tasks.
An ergonomically minded workspace keeps natural movement at the front of any decision-making process.
Optimizes the tasks required to complete these processes to prevent stress, strain, or repetition that leads to injury and/or fatigue.
This also applies to an employee’s overall workload and finding solutions that limit or offset the risk factors lifted are essential to protect your employees.
Other effects, such as improved productivity or quality, are secondary.
- What tasks require repetitive motions or processes?
- What strenuous tasks occur in the workplace?
- How much force is needed to complete work-related tasks?
- Are the workstations customized to the employee’s physiology? What allowances do employees have to do this?
- How is proper posture encouraged in the workplace?
Reasoning and Examples:
Repetitive movement increases the chances of stress-related injury, especially if there are no breaks or accommodations to offset these movements.
Twisting, turning, and even typing are common examples of this problem.
Strenuous and/or forceful tasks pile onto this problem. While activities such as lifting or moving heavy items may be necessary, offsetting the effects and preventing injury is essential to steer clear of ergonomic hazards.
Ergonomic accommodations should conform to an employee’s physiology, but this is not always possible.
Make sure equipment meets their height and weight, and consider if and how employees can customize these items to meet their bodies.
Equipment, furniture, and processes can encourage proper posture, but this is only effective if employees understand what proper posture looks like and how to implement it.
Addressing Ergonomic Hazards
There are three general methods for addressing ergonomic hazards:
- Engineering improvements
- Administrative improvements
- Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs)
While they will not reverse the effects of these hazards, they provide a better workspace moving forward.
Engineering improvements limit ergonomic risks by eliminating the hazards through physical means.
These improvements include:
- Rearranging, modifying or redesigning the workspace
- Replacing tools (equipment, workstations, parts, products)
- Adding new tools to limit exertion
Because they address the root of the problem, engineering improvements are extremely effective in addressing ergonomic hazards.
Administrative improvements reduce ergonomic risks by changing work processes. These changes strengthen the safety of the process and protect the employee from previous concerns.
These improvements include:
- Adding variety to processes
- Adjusting the schedule or pace
- Increasing recovery time
- Ensuring housekeeping and maintenance
- Encouraging complementary exercise
Any policy changes are administrative improvements.
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE):
Depending on the line of work, Personal Protective Equipment may be more or less necessary for addressing ergonomic hazards.
These come into play to offset concerns you cannot bypass due to the nature of the task, and common examples include:
- Knee and elbow pads
In most cases, these PPEs are not negotiable. They come into play when failing to use the equipment is certain to lead to injury.
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While we are still learning about the body and the effects of current work practices, we can only acknowledge hazardous situations and address them accordingly.
This may change as what we learn changes, but making quick changes gives employees the best chance at living and working pain-free.