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Ergonomics in the Workplace — What You Need to Reduce Repetitive Stress Injuries

The statistics for repetitive stress injuries (RSI) and musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) in the workplace are staggering. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 272,780 days-away-from-work cases in 2018, or 27 cases per 10,000 full time workers. The median days away from work was 12. That’s 12 days that you’ve lost good workers.

Not only that, but the top occupation with musculoskeletal disorders was construction laborers along with freight, stock and material movers. It’s tough enough to hire these workers. The very last thing we want happening is to have them away from work because of injury. Particularly from injuries that could be avoided.

Plus, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Even if your workers are on the job, they could be experiencing discomfort or even pain. This, in turn, reduces productivity and could easily impact employee morale.

As you can tell, it’s critical to find out exactly what workers are experiencing and take action to help alleviate stress and strain that can lead to costly injuries.

What are Repetitive Stress Injuries?

A repetitive stress injury, also known as repetitive strain injury, is damage to muscles, tendons, and nerves caused by repetitive motion. Common injuries are bursitis, rotator cuff tendonitis, tennis elbow and carpal tunnel syndrome. There’s even texting thumb that has recently joined the list.

The symptoms develop over time and include tingling or numbness, swelling, stiffness, sore or achy joints, as well as weakness. When they start it’s common to feel that it’s some passing pain or discomfort that will go away over time. Instead, it gets worse over time.

The causes of RSI/MSD include repetitive motion and stress of the same muscles, lifting heavy objects, stretching and straining in an abnormal position, as well as maintaining the same posture over a long period of time. Previous injuries can also increase the risk of further injury.

How Can Ergonomics Help?

Ergonomics is the study of the workplace along with every job and every task. It then designs the workplace and tasks to alleviate repetitive stress points. That could involve different tools and equipment, adapting workstation layout, setting maximum time limits on certain repetitive tasks, as well as employee education on proper positioning and lifting techniques.

What are the Typical Steps in an Ergonomic Analysis?

There are several ways to approach an ergonomic analysis. Here are the five broad steps:

  1. Identify and Prioritize Risk. Analyzing every job and task can be quite time consuming. It’s best to identify the high-risk jobs and tackle those first. For example, if there are jobs with repeated lifting or stretching and bending, those should go to the top of your list.
  2. Conduct a Risk Analysis. Once a specific job has been identified, you’ll need to evaluate the steps, movements and overall conditions of the work. A key part of this analysis is to interview the employees so they can point out the high-risk actions from their point of view when doing the job day-after-day, hour-after-hour.
  3. Develop Solutions for At-Risk Behavior. As a result of the risk analysis, you’ll identify changes to the work that might include new tools, time limits on repetitive tasks, more frequent breaks, as well as education for the employee to smooth implementation. Then you’ll need to thoroughly map out each change to guide the overall effort.
  4. Implement Solutions. Nothing to it but to do it. Well, if only it were so simple. But once the solutions have been properly designed, documented and the necessary employee training provided, it’s time to put it all in action.
  5. Evaluate Solutions Outcome. Of course, nothing works quite like we anticipate. That’s why a follow-up evaluation is needed to determine how things are going and to map out any adjustments needed in the solutions you’ve designed.

What is a Rapid Entire Body Assessment (REBA)?

One of the critical steps in any ergonomic analysis is conducting the review of job tasks. It not only needs to be done systematically no matter the work, but it also needs to be done consistently from one job or task to another.

A Rapid Entire Body Assessment (REBA) does just that. It uses a systematic process to evaluate job tasks for stress risks. It covers posture, exertion, type of movement, repetition, and coupling, which addresses hand holds. It uses a simple paper worksheet along with the skill of a trained and experienced consultant. The result is a score ranging from 1, representing negligible risk, to 11 up to a maximum 15, representing very high risk.

That score then allows you to readily conduct a risk analysis to identify the high priority areas for your efforts to develop and implement solutions that reduce RSI/MSD workplace injuries.

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