Our working lives seem to lengthen with each generation, and consequently the relevance of workplace ergonomics is becoming more apparent. This is especially so as an increasingly sedentary lifestyle is becoming harder to avoid. Sure life has been made easier with technology but the downside is that a lack of opportunity to exert ourselves at work can leave us with the unwelcome combination of physical weakness and weight gain. For most of us this will mean a good diet and exercise, yet like most things a combination of smaller solutions is more achievable and will have a greater effect. This where workplace ergonomics can play its part in combatting the effects of a sedentary lifestyle.
Ideally by starting early and maintaining a healthy work environment there is a greater chance of ensuring both work longevity and quality of life. Regardless of the work you do, taking an interest in ergonomics applies to and benefits us all. However for some of us, this will require fundamental changes to how we work. For some of us this will require fundamental changes to how we work and for those already practicing good workplace ergonomics will still be required to adapt to challenges along the way.
Changes can be made as an individual yet applying these across the workplace should be a priority of every work manager. After all both employers and employees should be seeking a happy, healthy and injury free workplace environment, of which economics should be an integral part.
As ergonomics is the study of people’s efficiency in their working environment, a certain scientific approach is required to assess, develop and implement ergonomic changes. This involves not only the work space but the physical capabilities and limitations of the people within the workplace. By systematically improving these areas, risk factors that lead to musculoskeletal injuries can be removed and replaced by improved performance and productivity. As such there is a greater chance of achieving sustained job satisfaction.
With input and effort from both the employee and employer, success is better assured and with it the dual economic benefits of an individual’ job security and a company’s competitiveness in the marketplace.
Investing in developing an ergonomic workplace
According to Work Safe Australia, of the 87,285 serious manufacturing injuries reported in the five years from 2008–9 to 2012-13, the highest cause of injury was body stressing, that include such conditions as muscle strains, back conditions or tendonitis. As these body stressing injuries made up 45% of the total number of injuries it is easy to see how developing correct workplace ergonomics could have an immediate positive impact.
The primary aim of workplace ergonomics is to reduce the incidence and severity of these musculoskeletal disorders, that being injury or pain to a persons joints, ligaments, muscles, nerves, tendons, and structures that support limbs, neck and back. This can be achieved by an ergonomic risk assessment carried out by a qualified and experienced physiotherapist.
It would be ideal for all businesses to have a proactive workplace economics program which is viewed as a essential to the overall business improvement process. Yet often an assessment is reactive to injuries within the workplace. This is not surprising since most individuals are not proactive about their musculosketal health. However the earlier an ergonomics improvement process is introduced, the more positive its impact will be on the entire business.
The process of assessing workplace ergonomics
As with introducing any new product or service to a business, the process of implementing workplace ergonomics will travel through several stages. From observing the workspace and identifying problem areas to prioritise, to conducting tests and evaluating the physical demands of employees, an ergonomic plan can be designed and implemented with the input of various staff and the approval of management. One the improvements are in place, they are followed up by evaluating the ergonomic improvement and measuring its effectiveness, hence completing the loop of the ergonomic improvement process.
Drawing upon their clinical knowledge, a physiotherapist will have the scientific advantage of objectively assessing and measuring workplace risk factors that would otherwise follow the path of fatigue, discomfort and then pain.
Physiotherapists are specialists in movement of the human body – analysing the positions and movement patterns that people adopt during their activities of daily living, and providing advice on how to optomise these positions and movement patterns to improve both wellbeing and performance. A physiotherapist with experience in occupational health and ergonomics can apply these skills to the workplace, identifying aspects of one’s regular working positions and movement patterns that might increase the risk of a worker developing symptoms such as fatigue, discomfort and pain.
Some of the main ergonomic risk factors that a physiotherapist will be looking for are postures that are awkward and hence are placing unnecessary force on joints, and subsequently are overloading the muscles and tendons surrounding the effected joint. Secondly physiotherapists will be looking at tasks that require either high force loads on the body, whether that be pushing, pulling or lifting and repetitive motions. Finally tasks and job cycles that are repetitive in nature, especially those that are controlled by production targets, make up the last area of ergonomic risk factors.
All of these factors affect your musculoskeletal or “movement” system, yet when they are combined there is a greater risk for musculosketal disorders developing. So accurate assessment and advice is required for each of these factors.
Ultimately the aim of the cycle of assessment, development, implementation and evaluation is to ensure jobs and tasks fit to the capabilities of those who do them. In doing so workplaces and more importantly the people who work in them will be safer, healthier, more comfortable and more productive.
More information concerning the improvement of the physical setup of both the individual and their surrounds is covered in our next article that details the posture, principles and exercises for workplace ergonomics.
In the meantime it is worth pondering that striving for an injury free working life, supports Aristotle’s observation that ‘pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.’