How Biomedical Engineering Is Improving Workplace Safety

Every year, U.S. businesses spend hundreds of millions of dollars on workplace-related injuries. Although most of us think of workplace injuries as falls and other accidents, the majority of injuries actually develop over time as the result of repetitive small movements. Repetitive stress injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, affect hundreds of thousands of American workers — and businesses can be held liable for the injuries and the costs associated with treating them. Because workplace injuries are so common, safety and prevention efforts have become a vital part of the employment landscape. Most companies offer some type of training and support to prevent injuries, from voluntary ergonomics evaluations and training to formal safety programs. These programs do not occur on their own, though, and are based on both best practices developed over time, and the latest biomedical and biomechanical research. In fact, it may be surprising, but biomedical research and engineering is on the forefront of improving workplace safety.

Improving Ergonomics
The study of ergonomics is nothing new; the practice dates back to the 1950s, when Department of Defense researchers were interested in finding ways to reduce fatigue among airline pilots. However, in practice, ergonomics is constantly changing and adapting to the new ways that people work, especially when it comes to incorporating technology.

For instance, many older computer workstations are not designed for use with modern computers and equipment, leading to repetitive stress injuries. At the ergonomics center at the University of Connecticut Farmington, researchers are discovering similar issues in many products, including office furniture and even items designed to be more ergonomically correct. The center has begun working with the designers of such items to improve the ergonomics from the start, involving biomedical and biomechanical engineers to evaluate designs from a biological standpoint to determine the most effective designs to prevent injuries.

Trends in Ergonomics
As ergonomic principles evolve to better address the demands of a modern workplace, a number of key trends are taking shape that will help improve workplace safety and reduce the costs associated with employee injuries.

1. Shift from program to process. One major trend taking shape in ergonomics is a shift from it being considered a "program" to being considered part of the overall process of improvement in many companies. Ergonomics is becoming a part of major improvement processes such as Six Sigma or Lean, ensuring that changes are made continuously as the business’ needs change, best practices change, and technology changes.

2. Advanced human factors engineering. The ergonomics center at UConn Farmington is just one example of the increase in human factors engineering taking place to reduce the chance of injury. Because many items are designed with "ideal" use in mind, they may be considered ergonomically appropriate, but don’t actually take into account the actual use of the item. Many of us take shortcuts or make modifications to how we use technology, furniture, or other tools, which can lead to injuries. By improving human factors engineering to better account for these real life uses, using motion capture cameras and other tools, scientists can more effectively determine how things are being used and design them to be safer.

3. Improved biomedical engineering education. The University of Connecticut facility is unique, and plans to play an important role in biomedical engineering education with an eye toward improving ergonomics. However, because human factors engineering and ergonomics are becoming such important concepts in the development of everything from computer desks to medical equipment, this field of education is growing in general. For example, biomedical engineering online programs are also expanding to help as the ergonomics industry also grows and develops.

The idea of using biomedical engineering principles to improve workplace safety is becoming more prevalent, as more and more employers realize the costs of workplace injuries. While major injuries from falls, cuts, or chemical exposure still remain of concern, addressing ergonomics can potentially save billions of dollars. In fact, research indicates that investing in ergonomics actually creates a better safety culture; by investing in tools to help your employees remain safer, and showing that you care about their health and well-being, they are more likely to follow safety protocols as they work. And that is something that everyone can benefit from.

Jenn French (702-997-2700, ext. 276, [email protected]) works for the marketing firm Seek Visibility, located in Las Vegas, Nev.

Posted on Jun 26, 2017

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