Why does your operation need a proactive ergonomics improvement action plan in 2023? If yours is one of the hundreds of U.S. businesses that’s experienced a non-fatal workplace injury in its facilities, then you know first-hand the direct costs: workers compensation, medical, and lost-wage expenses. Weekly, in fact, companies spend more than $1 billion on disabling injuries that caused employees to miss five or more days — a total of $58 billion annually — according to the latest Liberty Mutual Insurance Workplace Safety Index.
The leading cause? Overexertion while handling objects, like the heavy boxes and cases so many warehouse and distribution center workers handle manually on the job. As we’re already two weeks into the New Year, consider making a resolution to reduce their risk of injury by developing and implementing a proactive ergonomics improvement action plan to improve worker ergonomics in 2023. By creating and following a proactive plan, operations managers can identify problem areas and tasks with greater potential to result in injuries — and take steps to resolve them — before workers are hurt.
Establish a Proactive Ergonomics Improvement Action Plan
If you aren’t sure where to begin, the Ergonomic Assist Systems & Equipment (EASE) Council of MHI, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) have published a free, downloadable workplace safety handbook: “Ergonomic Guidelines for Manual Material Handling.” It includes a comprehensive, four-step framework for developing a proactive ergonomics improvement action plan designed to help operations managers determine:
- Why are workplace problems and injuries associated with manual material handling jobs occurring?
- Which work tasks are causing injuries or production bottlenecks, or reducing product and service quality?
- How should these problems be addressed?
- How can workers’ compensation cost be reduced?
The process includes involving workers, observing jobs, making decisions on effective options, and then acting. To ensure both the most comprehensive understanding of the current situation and the selection of the optimal solution, it is imperative to include workers, supervisors, and managers throughout the process.
A proactive ergonomics improvement action plan includes four steps.
1. Look for clues.
First, review all written records, such as OSHA Log 300, past worker reports or complaints, and workers’ compensation reports. Your worker’s comp insurance carrier may offer risk-management services that can provide workplace assessment surveys. Next, observe work activities and talk with workers, supervisors, and managers to identify where problems exist. Some of the warning signs can include:
- Awkward postures, repetitive motions, forceful exertions, or remaining in the same position for extended periods of time.
- Worker fatigue or reports of discomfort.
- Workers exhibiting behaviors that indicate pain, such as massaging hands or neck.
- Workers modifying tools, equipment, or workstations on their own.
- Increased absenteeism or turnover.
- A rise in errors or mistakes.
- Production bottlenecks.
Ask workers for their input on ways to modify or alter their tasks, processes, operations, tools, or equipment. Specifically solicit their ideas about how they would make their jobs less physically demanding and more efficient.
Then, use formal assessment tools to determine where problems might be occurring in different tasks. There are a variety of checklists and evaluation forms available from NIOSH and academic sources (several are listed in the free EASE publication).
2. Prioritize jobs for improvements.
Once the problems have been identified, decide which tasks to improve. Selection considerations include:
- Frequency and severity of identified risk factors, complaints, symptoms, and/or injuries.
- Technical and financial resources available.
- Worker ideas for improvements.
- Ease or difficulty in implementing solutions.
- Desired timeline for completion of improvement cycle.
3. Make improvements.
The goal here is to make changes that improve the fit between the demands of the work tasks and the capabilities of your workers. Look to combine operations and processes, when possible, to reduce or eliminate unnecessary manual material handling of products and materials. For more suggestions about what to improve and how, consult with employees as well as industry peers, equipment vendors, and ergonomics experts.
4. Follow up.
After implementing the process and equipment improvements, evaluate them continuously to determine their effectiveness. Answering these questions can be helpful in this part of the process:
- Are fatigue, discomfort, or injuries reduced or eliminated?
- Did workers accept the improvements?
- Were most or all risk factors eliminated?
- Did the improvement result in any new risk factors?
- Has product or service quality improved or declined?
- Has productivity and efficiency improved or declined?
- Is there enough training to make the new improvements effective?
Focus on Continuous Improvement
Not everything works the first time — and a solution that does work likely still has areas of further improvement. Part of your resolution to develop and implement a proactive ergonomics improvement action plan is to commit to continuously looking for more ways to get even better. But, like all successful New Year’s resolutions, by establishing and sticking with your new commitment to finding new ways to prevent employee injuries in manual material handling tasks will ultimately pay off in healthier, happier workers, lower workers’ compensation costs, and greater productivity.
Need more ideas for ways to minimize the risk of employee injuries and improve workplace safety by incorporating ergonomic material handling solutions? The members of the Ergonomic Assist Systems & Equipment (EASE) Council of MHI are always available to consult, answer questions, and make recommendations. Learn more about EASE.