Ergonomics: The New Frontier

Contributor: Scott Schneider, MS, FAIHA

Ergonomics is not a four-letter word. Under the OSHA Act, every worker is guaranteed a workplace “free of recognized hazards.” Yet in 2020, a report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that almost a quarter of a million workers in the United States lost work because of musculoskeletal disorders (Table MSD1) and this is likely an underestimate. These sprain and strain injuries often shorten careers and cause disability in retirement. In the late 1990s, Federal OSHA and several states attempted to promulgate an ergonomics standard but were struck down by state legislatures and Congress under the Congressional Review Act (CRA).

Why is this common hazard and workplace injury often ignored? As with hearing loss, workers who change jobs frequently (e.g., construction workers) have a hard time showing work-relatedness for injuries that occur over time—despite numerous studies showing them to be at high risk because of their work. Workers’ compensation claims are often disputed and many workers get discouraged from even filing one. Sprain and strain injuries are also hard to prove. Pain is subjective so someone may be in pain but can’t prove it. Yet this doesn’t mean the injuries are not real. The Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index for 2021 claims that “overexertion involving outside sources (handling object)” is the number one costly injury costing $13.3 billion a year. Injuries from awkward postures and repetitive tasks cost an additional $6.4 billion a year. These three constitute about a third of all lost workday injuries.

What are you doing to prevent these injuries? Some employers claim that they are just part of the job and there is nothing you can do to prevent them. Workers are blamed for not lifting correctly. And, because of their chronic nature, many don’t feel compelled to address them or take preventative actions. Many employers jumped on “quick fixes” like back belts which have not proven effective or stretching programs which have also not been shown to be helpful. But ergonomic hazards can be addressed and musculoskeletal injuries prevented.

The best solution to preventing these injuries is prevention through design and proper planning. Are heavy materials being delivered by cart and dolly close to where they will be used, for example, or do they require manual handling? Do you have a policy that no material weighing more than 50 lbs. be lifted by yourself?  Are materials being stored off the ground level to allow them to be accessed more safely? There are lots of new tools and equipment available to make work easier and allow workers to “work smarter not harder.” Asking experienced workers for input in redesigning your workplace and process is essential, a process called participatory ergonomics. A few resources I would recommend include:

Ergonomics is too important to ignore. There are lots of solutions available to implement and they can have a huge impact on worker health as well as improving productivity. This is perhaps the most important hazard for employers to address.

About the Author

Scott Schneider has worked on occupational safety and health issues in the Labor Movement for over 40 years. He worked for the Carpenter’s Union, The Workers’ Institute for Safety and Health, the Center for Construction Research and Training (CPWR), and the Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America (LHSFNA), from which he recently retired as the Director of Occupational Safety and Health. Two of his many notable contributions include co-authoring one of the first review articles on ergonomics and construction (1994), as well as his role in helping organize both the first national and international conference on ergonomics in construction.

Over his career, he helped develop standards to protect workers from asbestos and silica, fought to protect workers from noise exposure and ergonomic injuries as well as in areas such as work zone safety, fall prevention, and improving safety climate in construction. He is a fellow member of the American Industrial Hygiene Association and was awarded the William Steiger Award by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) for his contributions to the field. Additionally, in 2019, he received the AIHA Social Responsibility Award.