According to the National Safety Council, the total cost of work-related injuries in 2019 was $171.0 billion. That total includes $53.9 billion in wage and productivity losses, $35.5 billion in medical expenses, and $59.7 billion in administrative expenses. Further, 70 million days of work were missed due to injuries.
Many of those work-related injuries are musculoskeletal, affecting muscles, nerves, tendons, joints, cartilage, and spinal disks. Their cause, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the U.S. Department of Labor, is from a bodily reaction (bending, climbing, reaching, twisting), overexertion, or repetitive motion. These work-related musculoskeletal injuries tend to be more severe than the average non-fatal injury or illness, and therefore cost employers more in terms of absenteeism, lost productivity and increased costs in health care, disability, and worker’s compensation.
It doesn’t have to be this way. With the addition of industrial ergonomics solutions, the job can be designed to better fit the worker (as opposed to the other way around). By engineering a more optimized process — supported by ergonomic equipment — to make the work less strenuous for employees, their health and productivity will improve. When an operation is evaluating the addition of one or more ergonomic solutions into their workflows, the Ergonomic Assist Systems & Equipment (EASE) Council of MHI recommends managers take three key considerations into account to ensure a successful deployment.
- Match the right equipment to the task and the workers. Just as there are a multitude of different workflows and processes in manufacturing, distribution, and manual material handling, there are numerous ergonomic solutions available to help make those tasks easier and less tiring for workers. Often, more than one type of ergonomic equipment can be implemented to reduce the amount of effort that must be expended to complete a task and also increase productivity. For example, work positioners come in a variety of styles and types — including floor-based lift tables, tilters, and turntables, as well as overhead manipulators, lifters, and balancers suspended from above. Depending on the task at hand, and the physical characteristics of the personnel who will be performing it, one option might be a more appropriate solution than another. It can often be helpful to consult with a specialist in the field (such as the members of the EASE Council) who can study the job and its steps, then make recommendations for the optimal ergonomic equipment.
- Avoid trading one musculoskeletal injury risk for another. When implementing an ergonomic solution to improve a process it is important to evaluate the new handling practice to ensure that a new risk hasn’t been introduced. For example, adding a vacuum lifter that bears the weight of cartons as a pallet is loaded by hand eliminates the ergonomic strains of stretching, bending, lifting, reaching and more. By making the job easier, workers can be more productive. Yet that increase in productivity may also increase repetitive movement, which presents a different musculoskeletal injury risk. To avoid this turn of events, other practices — such as rotating associates through different work areas or changing their position from seated to standing to prevent them from repeatedly using the same muscle groups — can be implemented.
- Assess the return on investment. While any investment in ergonomic equipment has the potential to reduce injury risks and raise productivity, some investments will offer better returns than others. It’s important to select — and customize — the solution that best matches the needs of the worker performing the task in order to gain the most benefit. Investing in an adjustable workstation that must be hand-cranked to raise or lower it is far less likely to be used than one equipped with a motorized lift activated by a push button. Or, implementing a new workstation for packing outbound e-commerce shipments but not equipping it with the appropriate accessories — to organize, elevate and dispense tape and void fill, store a hand-held scanner, hold a label printer, and house a keyboard — will lead to a cluttered worksurface that requires additional reaching and searching, slowing productivity. Additionally, by creating a worker-centric ergonomic process, employees will feel valued and the work will be more enjoyable, reducing turnover while simultaneously helping to attract and retain quality personnel.
Need more help in assessing your operation’s ergonomic risks and how to best mitigate them? 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.