This adjustable mop handle features a double bend, padded grips, and a swivel top, reducing wrist strain and calluses, according to the manufacturer. (Kaivac Inc. photo)

Little Changes Solve Big Pain Problems

Manufacturers that make tools and equipment for use in offices and industrial settings can play a significant role in helping to minimize WMSDs.

Until someone experiences muscular aches and pains firsthand, he or she may not realize the impact they can have, not only on worker productivity, but also on his or her employer and on life outside of work.

Case in point: The key duty of a 50-year-old man working in the accounting department of a manufacturing company were to prepare spreadsheets, budgets, and written presentations on a variety of issues -- from profit-and-loss statements concerning specific company products to weighty reports on the overall health of his company and the industry. For years, the man had prepared these documents while sitting at a computer, at the same desk, and in the same chair.

In October 2010, he started experiencing slight pain in his wrist and more severe pain in his shoulders. Although the man began taking aspirin and then more powerful prescription painkillers, the pain persisted to the point where he and his employer became concerned that he could not continue working for the company.

A physical therapist who specializes in ergonomics finally was brought in to watch how the man worked and see whether changes could be made to help alleviate the pain and save the man's job. Her findings and the actions taken to alleviate the problems she discovered included the following:

  • The computer keyboard was positioned too low. A platform was placed under the keyboard.
  • The man was using an older "ergonomic" keyboard designed to help prevent carpal tunnel syndrome and similar ailments. However, since its introduction, researchers determined that the employee's keyboard actually increased the incidence of carpal tunnel. A more conventional keyboard was installed.
  • When typing, the man placed his reference notes on a table about a foot below his desk, causing him to bend over to read notes. The table was raised so that his notes were level with the desk.
  • His chair was positioned low behind the desk, causing him to look up to the monitor. The chair height was adjusted so his eyes and the monitor were at the same level.
  • He was also instructed to stop every two hours and perform some very easy stretching exercises to help strengthen and relax his wrists, arms, and shoulders.

On reflection, the man and his employer were surprised neither had ever examined the way he worked at his desk to see whether that could be causing the pain. But, what surprised them even more was that, within about a week, the wrist pain was gone; within a month, the shoulder pain also was gone.

What this man was experiencing and what millions of Americans also experience every day is called work-related musculoskeletal disorder -- WMSD for short. WMSDs affect muscles, tendons, and nerves and typically are the result of various ergonomic issues.

"These injuries typically develop as a result of the same muscles being used over and over again, often while applying force and with little recovery time between repetitions," said David Frank, president of the American Institute for Cleaning Sciences (AICS), which has investigated WMSDs for the professional cleaning and housekeeping industries.

However, as we will discuss later, they also occur -- and occur in great numbers -- when workers are not using the same muscles over and over again, applying force, or even using repetitive motions.

Data on the number of people suffering with WMSDs varies. Among the reasons for this is that some workers and their employers are unaware of the problem. Others, as in the earlier example, fail to connect the dots between the pain and their work. And other workers, for a variety of reasons, simply do not notify their employers when experiencing pain. However, Frank provides the following statistics about WMSDs as a guide:

  • WMSDs account for 34 percent of all lost workday injuries and illnesses.
  • Eighty-five percent of all worker's compensation claims involve cumulative trauma injuries, which are the result of repeatedly using or overusing parts of the body such as arms and wrists.
  • WMSDs account for more than $25 billion in worker's compensation costs. If related costs are considered, such as absenteeism and reduced worker productivity, the costs are in excess of $50 billion.
  • Early intervention helps about 90 percent of the people who experience pain.

"Prevention of musculoskeletal disorders requires recognition, assessment, and control of the hazards," he said, suggesting that both workers and employers have a role in preventing and eliminating WMSDs. "The worker must know and practice proper work behaviors, use equipment correctly, watch for signs of injury, and bring these to the attention of the employer. The employer must provide the proper tools, protective gear, as well as a safe and healthy place in which to work; and . . . stay aware of what conditions or situations may cause injury."

The Manufacturer's Role
Manufacturers that make tools and equipment for use in offices and industrial settings can play a significant role in helping to minimize work-related musculoskeletal disorders.

Vacuum cleaners are a great example of how manufacturers of professional cleaning equipment design machines with worker comfort and ease of use in mind. Hotel housekeepers typically use vacuum cleaners more than the average worker. Most work eight to 10 hours per day and, while numbers can vary, are expected to clean and vacuum 20 or more guest rooms every day, along with hallways and common areas.

"We always keep in mind that we're building equipment used by professionals and that the machines are often used for extended periods, while also needing to be transported from one location to another," said Michael Schaffer, president of Tornado Industries, which manufactures a variety of vacuum cleaner systems.

To ensure vacuums meet the needs of professional users, some manufacturers have made the following changes to their machine designs over the years, Schaffer said:

  • Handles. They have been redesigned to be more comfortable. The handle grip conforming to a user's hand is a key design consideration. Additionally, some units feature adjustable handle tubes, allowing them to better fit users' height.
  • Weight. Thanks to modern materials, vacuum bodies today weigh less. Manufacturers also are spending a considerable amount of time and effort on handle weight and feel. Regardless of the overall weight of a vacuum, the amount of weight a user perceives when holding the handle in the operating position is a critical factor, and manufacturers do lots of things within their designs to lessen it.
  • Brush-assisted movement. The design of the brush itself can provide a slight self-propelled feel, making vacuuming easier.
  • Wheels. In almost every type of upright vacuum design, there are wheels or casters that stay in contact with the carpet. They can have a tremendous impact on the operation of the unit and on how easy it is to transport the unit from one area to another. Again, newer materials and technology have allowed for major advancement in this element.
  • Noise. There are lots of studies that show working with loud machines can cause fatigue and hamper productivity. Quieter machines, 70 dB or less, are now the norm and help minimize noise's negative impact. (See the sidebar.)
  • Vacuum bags. Even simple things such as easy-to-install filter collection bags can make a tremendous difference for an operator who uses a vacuum cleaner for many hours each day.

Although not an ergonomic issue, vacuums with poor air filtration can have a definite impact on workers' health. Because of this, many manufacturers now produce vacuums with HEPA filtration systems as standard equipment. In reaction, more and more facility managers are asking for them, and most "green building" programs require them. And in many public facilities, the use of a HEPA-filter-equipped vacuum is legislated.

"Many of these changes are rather simple, but they have had a major impact on user comfort," Schaffer said. "These same design changes can and are being incorporated into other types of equipment and, along with the other items discussed here, help protect workers."

According to a new analysis using what is called the Lumbar Motion Monitor, housekeeping work, including bed-making tasks, has a 75 percent probability of yielding a high injury rate. These findings are higher than found for any of the 20 manufacturing jobs that were also studied. Likewise, a new analysis of the bed-making task on a luxury bed showed that bed-making alone (apart from other room cleaning tasks) exceeded the safe lifting limit recommended by NIOSH. During the same period (1999 to 2003), hotels have reduced the number of key employees assigned to housekeeping tasks by 45 percent.

As fewer housekeepers perform more tasks, now is the perfect time to incorporate equipment that minimizes work-related stress and fatigue. Remember, WMSDs affect more than just injured employees; productivity, morale, costs, focus, and other factors are in play. Proper, safe equipment is available today to help in alleviating big pain problems.

Sidebar: Key Causes of Fatigue in the Workplace
Fatigue is increased by:

  • dim lighting,
  • limited visual acuity (e.g., due to weather),
  • high temperatures,
  • high noise,
  • tasks that must be sustained for long periods of time, and
  • work tasks that are long, repetitive, paced, difficult, boring, and monotonous.

Workplaces can help by providing environments with good lighting, comfortable temperatures, and reasonable noise levels.

Source: Canadian Centre for Occupational Health & Safety

This article originally appeared in the October 2011 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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