How to Use Ergonomics in the Workplace

How to Use Ergonomics in the Workplace

In November 2000, OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) published the Ergonomic Standard, an updated set of policies and procedures that went into effect in January 2001. This standard set forth requirements applicable to all US employers, ultimately affecting over 102 million employees.

This updated standard focused on muscular-skeletal disorders (MSDs), a condition suffered by over 1.8 million U.S. employees annually. A third of these people miss work due to these injuries, which can involve muscles, joints, tendons, nerves, and, most prevalently, spinal discs. These injuries are present in the shoulder, neck, arm, elbow, fingers, wrist, and most frequently, the back. In fact, half of those injuries that result in an employee not being able to work are back related.

Unlike sudden injuries that occur when employees fall or are hurt by a machine, MSDs build up over time and are most often due to repetitive movement. Other causes can be prolonged exposure to vibration, bad workstation positioning, and continual impact.

One of the most prevalent examples of an MSD is carpal tunnel syndrome. The carpal tunnel is a passageway on the underside of the wrist through which passes nerves and tendons leading to the fingers. Carpal tunnel syndrome is a condition that occurs when this nerve is compressed and the tendons within the tunnel become swollen. People suffering from this condition notice an increasing numbness in the fingers. If left untreated, the hand becomes weak and fingers lose sensation.

The Ergonomics Standard requires employers to offer their employees information on MSDs including the symptoms, when they should be reported, procedures for reporting symptoms, and the types of jobs that put people at risk. It also spells out how an employer must treat a report of MSD and what constitutes this condition. Basically, if an employee reports that he or she has been suffering symptoms for seven days, the employer must talk to a doctor to determine if this is indeed a work-related MSD. The worker is allowed to get a second opinion if the first doctor does not agree.

Then, the employer is required to analyze the complainant’s job and check to see if the person has been exposed to ergonomic risk. A checklist is provided and spells out specifics related to each type of risk factor and condition. For example, the standard indicates that to be considered a risk factor, repetition would involve a person performing the same movements for two hours or more non-stop.

For people using keyboards, more than four hours a day is considered repetition. Other items on the checklist are force (lifting more than 75 pounds for more than two hours each day), posture (being seated in an abnormal position for more than two hours each day), and contact stress (using a body part to apply heavy force), vibration (using tools with high levels of vibration more than thirty minutes a day).

The employer will then determine whether or not the person’s job meets the criteria that would put the employee at risk. If the job meets the requirements, the employer must correct the situation within ninety days. This would apply to companies where only one MSD has been reported and in which less than two others had been discovered in the previous 18 months. In companies where more than one MSD is reported at a time, or where there have been more than two reported in the previous 18 months, the employer must establish an ergonomic program for that job.

OSHA has established guidelines to be used when a company is required to set up a complete program. These guidelines require that a defined program be established and that all employees are aware of the problem and the proposed solution. Employee involvement is necessary, and the company is required to fully support these efforts.

All employees who do the same job in which the MSDs were diagnosed, must be made aware of the situation and their jobs evaluated for future risk. The employer is required to rectify the situation by changing work stations, offering more frequent breaks, changing policy regarding work methods, and using personal protective gear where necessary.

All employees who do the same job in which the MSDs were diagnosed must be trained as to the signs and symptoms of MSD and how to report a suspected case. This must be done within 45 days of the initial incident. The employer is also required to train all other employees within 90 days of the incident and schedule follow-up training every three years.

The employer is also required to assist the affected employee(s) in every way including restricting their work or reassigning them to a different job. The employee must not be penalized and will continue to receive full pay and benefits even if they cannot do the same job.

This policy further includes employees whose injuries are so severe that they cannot return to work for an extended period. They will receive 90 percent of their pay and 100 percent of their benefits for 90 days. This will end only if the employee can return to work or a doctor declares that they cannot return to their job. Every three years, employers are required to evaluate their program. Further, they must keep records for three years. The only exceptions to any of these requirements are companies that had an ergonomic program prior to November 14, 2000.

Employers can be proactive to prevent MSDs by providing ergonomically correct work stations, chairs, pointing devices, keyboards, and by insisting that employees use protective equipment and obey lifting limits and other safety considerations. At risk employees have a responsibility to follow these rules and make sure that they take breaks from repetitive work and maintain correct posture and utilize equipment provided.

The benefit to both employers and employees is startling. OSHA estimates that each MSD costs employers nearly $30,000. If these standards are followed, millions of MSDs can be prevented saving billions of dollars.

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