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Every jobsite is complex, and has plenty of safety precautions that need to be kept in mind. Unfortunately, as much as we worry about traumatic injuries such as breaks, burns, and falls, we tend to put others on the back burner. While the impact of traumatic injuries is clear and frightening, the insidiousness of problems such as musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) doesn’t tend to pop up until years down the line – so we don’t think about them in the immediate sense.
Now’s the time to start doing so.
What Are Musculoskeletal Disorders?
Musculoskeletal disorders – generally abbreviated MSDs – are defined by OSHA
as “disorders that affect the muscles, nerves, blood vessels, ligaments, and tendons of the body.” In our context, it is specifically disorders stemming from job-related activities. Common MSDs include carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis, rotator cuff injuries, trigger finger, and muscle strains.
One of the biggest worries with MSD’s is that they can turn into long-term issues that never go away. It’s bad enough that they are one of the biggest causes of lost time – according to
the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2016 MSDs accounted for 32% of all days-away-from-work cases. For every 100,000 workers on record, 294 of them were affected throughout the year.
However, a study in the UK noted that
in 2015-2016, there were roughly 539,000 work-related MSDs recorded, with roughly 176,000 being new cases. This means that the rest – 363,000 – are continuing, existing cases. That number is only going to increase, as for some workers, that disorder will be permanent. They will only be able to treat, exercise, and alleviate the pain, never getting rid of it for good.
MSDs are not just physically debilitating either. A 2015 studyin the Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation noted that depression is common within the first year following a lost-time musculoskeletal injury, and if not addressed well in the first six months, can lead to long-term depression. It can also lead to poor outcomes when the injured worker returns to work, potentially affecting their career and long-term potential. Symptoms can range from a continuous low mood and low self-esteem, to a lack of physical or mental strength and changes in appetite.
Ergonomics on the Job Site
Ergonomics aren’t usually considered when you’re out on the job site, or when you’re designing a work station with the task in mind. Often, it’s more a concern of making sure the work gets done, and it’s left up to the employees to alleviate any personal pains.
There are five different ergonomic hazards that can arise on a job site or in a manufacturing space:
Repetition: Doing the same task that uses the same muscle or muscle groups over and over again. This could include assembly-line jobs, as well as doing the same task on a construction site every day.
Awkward Postures: Working with your body held in a position that is uncomfortable or unnatural for an extended period of time. This can be hard to recognize, as what is defined as “awkward” will change from person to person.
Hand-Arm Vibration: Using power tools and other equipment, including heavy machinery operation or manufacturing equipment, can allow vibration to stress the arms and hands. Someone who runs a jackhammer every day, for instance.
Contact Stress: Pressure from a hard object such as a tool handle on the soft body tissue. It could be the pressure coming from the worker, such as constantly pushing down on a lever, or it could be from machine recoil, such as a nail gun recoiling into a palm.
High Force: Needing to use excessive muscle power to lift, push, grip tools, or turn objects. This could include pushing and pulling on tools, lifting boxes, and more.
What You Can Do
The best way to alleviate or avoid the impact of MSDs is to concentrate on the ergonomics on job sites. This starts with management – there should be a strong commitment from the management team to support improvements in ergonomics, whether proactively or reactively.
Consider using lighter-weight materials and tools. The less weight your workers need to handle, the less likely there is to be straining.
Identify and assess ergonomic problems as soon as possible – consider daily walk-throughs to observe the job site and how workers function.
Provide ergonomics training to workers and managers, and frame it in the context of the job they are doing. Teach them how to recognize risk factors, detect early symptoms of musculoskeletal injuries, and measures they can use to prevent these injuries.
Encourage stretch breaks and strengthening exercises, and provide the materials or courses that can be used. Give your team time on the clock if necessary to use – five or ten minutes of stretching a day could prevent weeks of lost time later.
Invest in innovative tools and equipment, whether it be buying or renting. Toolmakers and inventors are constantly bringing new ideas to the manufacturing and construction industries, with everything from spring-assisted finishing tools, to universal drill rigs, to auto-feed screw guns aimed at reducing strain and vibrations, or making workers put themselves in awkward positions.
Utilize daily toolbox talks as reminders for your team. Training can fade over time – weekly or monthly refreshers will help drive home the point that you are keeping ergonomics at the forefront of your mind.
The key to getting ergonomic right is to involve your workers, and let them know that you have full trust that they will identify and report hazards whenever they arise. A fully-inclusive approach is necessary because, after all, it’s the workers that are dealing with the issues. What looks right to you may feel wrong to them, and vice versa. Have them assist in the process whenever able, and make sure to listen – if you don’t take their feedback on board, they may stop providing it.
Once you implement solutions, make sure to regularly evaluate progress as time passes and assess whether the solutions are working, or if more tweaks are necessary. Ergonomic solutions are rarely final, and may need months or even years of adjustments before reaching the goal. The key is always to be moving towards that goal.
Paying attention to daily ergonomics on the job site is the responsibility of everyone on site – the management, the workers, the safety officers, and anyone else who observes poor ergonomics. So keep on top of them, make sure everyone knows that they’re input is valued, and help your team towards long careers where the tolls of MSDs are avoided!
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