From Small Changes Come Big Results

Sage advice from Robert Pater, an ergonomics expert who writes Occupational Health & Safety's monthly Breakthrough Strategies column and leads a busy safety consulting firm: "People have to take control of their own personal ergonomics." As you might guess, Robert’s approach is different from what many ergonomists might use. But he says bringing about this necessary personal control is easier than you may think.

Pater, who has published many articles on this subject, conceived the idea of a "concentric ergonomic culture" to explain how engaged employees can enhance their organization's safety and significantly reduce soft-tissue injuries among the workforce. In a January 2014 interview, he explained that employers actively can help workers who are fatigued, rushed, or distracted maintain better mental control and in the process ward off such injuries.

"Clients and potential clients are very concerned about mindfulness," he explained, "keeping people's minds on tasks: How do we keep it so that they're fresh and alert?"

Ergonomics is too often defined as the physical body alone, he said. You've got to address both sides--the mental and the physical--because anyone who thinks these are separate tracks is mistaken, he added. "Generally, people called ergonomists are purchasers and redesigners: 'How do I make this keyboard or this product fit the people?' as opposed to, 'How do I make the people fit, how do I create a better connection between the two of them?'"

He explained in a November 2012 Professional Safety article that the three strategies useful for improving the fit between people and their work tasks are 1) bringing the work closer to the people, 2) bringing people closer to the work, and 3) combining the first two.

For example, he said his firm has shown managers and employees at client companies how "rotating your elbows toward your body gives you dramatically more strength. We woke people up and woke their attention, because a lot of what we're trying to do is gather their attention [to] how very small changes they make mentally, physically make huge differences in their body, as well as their mind," he said.

Maintenance employees they had trained at one company realized the push carts at their facility were not optimally designed because the carts were made with horizontal handles, which required them to hold their elbows in an outward position from their bodies as they pushed the carts. Switching to two handles offset in a V-shaped pattern reduced the tension they felt, increased their usable strength, and reduced injuries, the workers reported. This case is a real-world example of "two-way" ergonomics, he said.

"We get this a lot with design," Pater said, "when people understand how it comes from the point of view of the person, as opposed to towards the task. Many people design from 'How do we make the task easier?' as opposed to, 'How do I make it easier for the person they way they're naturally built?'"

Avoiding Overload
He said he often points out that the term hand-eye coordination should be called eye-hand coordination, because our eyes lead our movement. Training workers to use their eyes better—note that this is actually a mental skill--attunes them to check in mentally and monitor themselves and what's going on around them: "Where are the forces coming into my body when I'm doing this task? Is there something I can do positionally or in any other way, externally or internally, to change the forces concentrating and pooling in the body. A lot of ergonomic injuries deal with pooling of forces, whether it be vibrational pooling of forces or physical pooling of forces, or sound."

Overloading of forces is what causes breakdown, said Pater. "So what can I do so it's not concentrating in a vulnerable part of my area, overloading, and causing breakdown?"

Is That Really a Static Posture?
Even truck drivers and forklift operators, who ostensibly are always in static postures, can do this, Pater said. "My first question is, Are you in a static posture? Do you have to be in a static posture? What we tell people to do is make use of your brains, shift your body. People tend to be too static when they're driving, and forces, again, pool in one direction."

Truck drivers can be prone to lower-back injuries because of static postures and whole-body vibration. "Are there ways to use different parts of your foot to press on the accelerator? To shift, while you're driving, so you're not always in a one position all the time. Even small changes make very, very big differences in how force pools," he explained, adding that, while the vehicle is stopped, a driver might raise his knees toward his chest and make sure he is exhaling, for example. "Am I focusing my breathing? It will change a lot how forces concentrate in your body. Your breathing is something that people rarely focus on, but it makes a big difference in how stiff you are."

It's much easier for forklift drivers to shift their position than for truck drivers, but this approach works for both groups, Pater said. "Question your assumptions: Is this indeed static, or am I making it more static than it really needs to be? Sitting a lot is not great for you, but even if I am sitting, how I'm sitting can make a difference, and I have some control of that. Another watchword that I have is, take control where you can. So the real key is how people take better control of their own, personal ergonomics when they can't always modify their work environment."

In the end, he said, redesign is just one approach to solving these problems. There may not be easy ways to design out the stresses, but there are ways for workers to mitigate their effects.

Posted by Jerry Laws on Mar 10, 2014

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