Have you trained your employees how to properly set up their individual areas, or are you assuming they will run to you if it doesn’t seem right or they start to hurt?

Comfortably Productive

A properly laid out workstation is crucial to a healthy work environment. Twisting, vibration, and repetitive motion have the potential for lost-time injuries, decreased production, and sour attitudes.

Ergonomics is a fundamental element of work flow, and the goal should always be to create a working environment that promotes safety and increases productivity. Along with achieving efficiency and morale improvement, organizations with a firm grip on ergonomics also will be limiting injury and illness -– all of which will have a direct positive effect on the bottom line.

Function over Fashion
Practical fixes often will trump fancy solutions (common sense over high tech). In addition, employees often will beat you to the punch in this area.

Have you noticed the grips of hard, metal hand tools being padded with duct tape for increased comfort? Are computer screens being raised with the use of a reference book, or are employees sitting higher with the use of a pillow? Are employees using cardboard as an anti-fatigue mat rather than standing directly on a concrete floor? A little discomfort for an 8- to 10-hour shift can lead to some very creative solutions by the person or persons feeling the pain. If these makeshift solutions start popping up in your place of employment, it is an indicator you are a little behind in the ergonomics arena of your organization.

It is up to you, the safety professional, to evaluate the workstations and offer a permanent solution. Use your safety committee to help find out what the problems are and what specific fixes are needed and how much they will cost. Many ergonomic corrections are both fast and fairly economical; Gloves for using hand tools; a computer station assessment and adjustment; an anti-fatigue mat to ease the stress on feet, legs, and backs; etc. You want to stay ahead of these kinds of problems, but if not, it is time to step up and earn your paycheck.

Keenly Observe
Walking through any workplace, you can pick up clues to ergonomic challenges just by consciously absorbing your surroundings. In office areas you will notice desktop setups with hunched-over or slouched workers, water cooler talk of sore backs and tired eyes, or rigged setups to accommodate the extremely tall or vertically challenged. Just because employees aren’t complaining directly to you doesn't mean you don't have ergonomic challenges -– I assure you, they are there. It is best to tackle these issues head on because they won't go away by ignoring them. When you don't know, go to the source -- ask the employee. But be prepared because he or she will tell you!

As you observe the workforce around you, put yourself in these colleagues' shoes. Could you lift, push, pull, or carry the equipment or product the way they do without overexerting? Is the work environment one in which you would be comfortable spending 40+ hours per week? Do the employees have everything they need to accomplish the task at hand without risk of injury or illness?

The Right Tools for the Job
Most tools are designed to accomplish a specific goal. Are your employees armed with the right tools to get the job done, or are the tools they are using designed with another task in mind? The wrong tool is not only inefficient, but also potentially hazardous.

Do they have to exert excessive force or hold awkward positions because a process hasn't been thought through or the proper tool was deemed too expensive or unnecessary? Consider the lowest common denominator, your weakest worker, when considering process improvements such as tools and station setups. This way, everyone in the process will benefit from the improvements.

The Importance of a Comfortable Workstation
A properly laid out workstation is crucial to a healthy work environment. A low workstation leads to a hunched-over employee who will eventually incur back discomfort, while an employee working at a station that is too high may experience discomfort in the neck or shoulders. Twisting, vibration, and repetitive motion are also scenarios that have the potential for lost-time injuries, decreased production, and sour attitudes.

Be proactive. Make changes that work for the long term. Get creative. Many solutions aren't expensive but yet are effective, and your team will appreciate your effort in making things right.

Remain Open to Suggestions
Employees are happier when they get a say and are included in the decision-making process. No one knows an employee's job better than the person doing it, so listen when they speak. Ask for feedback, whether it is regarding comfort, efficiency, quality, or technology.

We all know the squeaky wheel gets the grease, but what about the dedicated employee who doesn't want to complain, even though he is developing aches and pains while working his shift? You may need to reach out to these people in particular because they might remain tight lipped otherwise. Remind everyone to always listen to their body.

Assessment/Education
Have you trained your employees how to properly set up their individual areas, or are you assuming they will run to you if it doesn’t seem right or they start to hurt? Whatever the environment -– office, manufacturing, laboratory, etc. -– every job will have a preferred arrangement. Workstation setup doesn't need to be set in stone, but offer parameters from which the worker can customize. Be prepared to defend these guidelines and assure the worker it is all being done in the name of safety and efficiency.

Ergonomic assessment forms provide both education and worker involvement. Workers get the preferred workstation guidelines while being given the opportunity to provide direct feedback, ask questions, and make comments. During an assessment, you will hear that the furniture is substandard, the tools are inadequate, the floors are too hard, and the air temperature is too cold. Some of these open criticisms will be accurate and correctible, while others will not be. Nonetheless, morale and productivity depend on how you handle these comments and complaints. Let the employees know their comments are being heard and considered. If/when the suggestions are implemented, give them credit for the result.

The Economics of Ergonomics
In a tough economy, when cuts to raises, bonuses, and benefits are the norm, a little extra employee attention can go a long way. It makes sense to reach out and go the extra mile, especially for a workforce that may feel limited or stuck. Low morale is hard to change, so if your attention to workers' needs prevent things from going south, all the more reason to offer your support.

These efforts will offer your employer cost savings with regard to not having to train new hires potentially caused by turnover, will avoid injuries and illnesses, and also affords efficiency in tackling the tasks at hand. Did you realize ergonomics could play such an important part in your employer's work culture and profitability? It's not the biggest piece of the puzzle, but it definitely plays a role.

Evolve and Get Noticed
No workplace stays the same forever. Technology, people, and processes always will be changing. The ongoing role of the safety professional in any environment is to stay ahead of, or at the very least keep up with, the never-ending evolution of his or her particular work environment.

Safety often only gets noticed when there is a lack of it due to an accident or inspection. Improved ergonomics in your facility offers a positive way to get noticed within your organization by keeping your employees happy and healthy, increasing productivity, and helping the organization's bottom line.

Final Thoughts
As you review workstations, review your employees' footwear and how/where they sit. Many ergonomic problems start with worn-down or improper shoes, poor excuses for workplace seating, and other seemingly invisible issues. As the safety professional, you have the ability to offer improved comfort, reduced worker's compensation costs, and improved productivity ... a great accomplishment for safety!

This article originally appeared in the February 2013 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Keith Bilger, BS, is a Safety Consultant I for the Central Prison Healthcare Complex with the North Carolina Department of Public Safety in Raleigh, N.C. He can be reached at kbilger74@gmail.com.

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