Ergonomics in the workplace is a subject with many dimensions to consider, such as physical health, preexisting conditions and workplace dynamics. Even the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reverted from a controversial 2000 ergonomic ruling (or standard) to more general guidelines for employers. While OSHA has crafted individual, industry-specific plans, ergonomics affects all workers.
Ergonomics is defined as "the science of adapting the job and/or the equipment and the human to each other for optimal safety and productivity." In other words, ergonomics aims to prevent injury to employees by minimizing physical stressors in the workplace. Potential ergonomic stressors can be improper posture, excessive force, cold, vibrations, low lighting, high noise, contact stress and repetitive motion.
In 2000, OSHA documented 600,000 workers with ergonomic-related musculoskeletal disorders that caused lost work time. Nearly half of these were back injuries. Damages to the spine, fingers, wrists, neck or arms are common musculoskeletal disorders. These can range from mild to excruciatingly painful, even life-altering conditions.
Typically, these ergonomic injuries do not happen in a single incident. The vast majorities of musculoskeletal disorders are cumulative and result from chronic exposure or "action triggers." These action triggers fall into general groupings: repetition, force, vibration (especially in cold climates) or posture. Contact stress, the fifth category, is a condition arising from sustained force against body parts from an object, such as using the hand to pound objects.
Though ergonomic factors are present in all workplaces, not all musculoskeletal disorders are work-related. This is part of what makes it difficult to apply the ergonomic guidelines. In its ergonomic frequently asked questions, OSHA admits that assessing hazards is difficult. An employee can be exposed to action triggers on and off the job.
Over the years, OSHA has been carefully constructing industry-specific guidelines. Industries with high rates of musculoskeletal disorders---such as shipyards, poultry processing plants, retail grocery stores and nursing homes---have recently received ergonomic guides by OSHA. Nursing homes, for instance, have been advised to reduce the lifting of residents by employees. With a vast variety of workplaces, OSHA is hard-pressed to address each situation individually. Employers should review current guidelines and assess their own risk accordingly. (Full industry specific guidelines are linked below.)
Analyze your company with an eye to ergonomics and consider possible solutions. Examine employees' posture at desks. Are there continual repetitive motions such as high-speed typing? Allowing employees to take breaks or shift to other tasks periodically could reduce hazards. Look for areas of high noise, cold temperatures, excessive vibrations or heavy lifting. Review accident records for incidents involving ergonomics, such as back injuries. Train employees in ergonomic-related safety. Offer lifting instruction.
Though no ergonomic law exists, employers under the General Duty Clause are obligated to provide a working environment free of recognized hazards. Therefore, citations can be delivered if a known hazard such as an ergonomic risk is present.