Ergonomics. A pain in the neck?

Ergonomics. A pain in the neck?

Posted on December 20, 2016

by Steve Hnatishin

Musculoskeletal Injuries (MSIs), such as carpal tunnel or herniated disks, are injuries and disorders that affect the body’s movement.

It’s staggering to realize that MSIs make up more than half of lost time injuries in Manitoba. But the more jarring statistic may be that the MSI injury rate has stayed relatively consistent for more than a decade, despite advancements in workplace ergonomics. According to SAFE Work Manitoba, there were 10,459 MSIs in 2000. By 2013, the number had reduced only slightly to 9,027; remaining relatively stable within the decade. This, despite the fact that the manufacturing sector as a whole has experienced a slight decline in overall job numbers.

Is it possible that our efforts over the intervening decade have less than ineffective? Or is there something in the numbers that tells a different story?

Repetitive tasks aren’t going away any time soon
A closer look tells us that the nature of the manufacturing work environment itself is key to adapting effective strategies to combat MSIs. The repetitive nature of manufacturing tasks is not likely to change in the near future. Over time, bodies begin to fatigue and muscles, tendons, ligaments and cartilage can become injured or damaged. Indirect causes of musculoskeletal injuries in the manufacturing sector can be related to workers performing the same task all day every day without rotation; workers being fit to a job instead of a job fit to a worker and the common systems where employees have little to no control over their workflow.

Progress over perfection
The manufacturing sector can be slow to change; resistant to significant strides without prodding or immediate urgency (somewhat like turning the Titanic). However, the sector has been improving and conditions for workers in Manitoba are beginning to look better and better every year. In the case of MSIs, it’s reasonable to expect that progress over perfection will be the realistic standard for many workplaces.

Ergonomic solutions
Improvements gaining traction include task rotation, whereby workers are rotated through different job tasks over the course of the shift, allowing employees to cycle through numerous jobs that recruit different parts of the body. This in itself gives the workers body a chance to recover over the course of a shift instead of facing a constant, targeted strain.

Another advancement is the rise in maneuverable work stations that allow employees to move what they’re working on to suit proper body mechanics. Among many benefits, maneuverable workstations are particularly advantageous as they allow male and female employees of all body sizes to share properly suited work stations.

Finally, many manufacturing employers are actively searching for solutions to production line systems where worker-controlled flow is unrealistic. For example, by allowing certain workers to float from station to station to help a department that might be falling behind, production flow can be balanced and some strain removed from workers.

The way forward
Manufacturing has made many improvements in work environments and many of the controls are sustainable. The fact remains however that many workers are still suffering from MSI’s in manufacturing and there are still many opportunities for improvement. Organizations like Made Safe provide ergonomic consulting and ergonomic training at no additional cost to members. Encouragingly, member uptake is on the rise.

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