Chapter Corner

The Cost of Ergonomics in the Electrical Industry

Posted in: Features, August 2016

Over the past decade, the electrical industry has done a great job of recognizing the ergonomic safety issues caused by the use of manual tools. The negative effects these tools have caused on the body and risk to ergonomic injury make workers more injury prone and create hidden dangers on job sites. During this same period of time, some electrical tool manufacturers have listened to the voice of the electrical industry and have constantly innovated and invented new tools and features to improve the safety, accountability, and ergonomics of electrical tools in the marketplace.

The Switch

ErgoLab_Insights.gifAs an undisputed and well-known fact, the laborious and strenuous attributes of manual tools increase repetitive movement, introduce awkward working postures, and increase the risk of ergonomic injury and illnesses that affect the musculoskeletal system, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, sciatica, and muscle strains, to name a few. These attributes are slowly becoming less and less common in the workplace as the switch to battery-operated tools has taken place by large and small contractors across the country.

While the switch from manual tools to their ergonomically improved battery-operated counterparts has already begun, there are still many electrical workers who are using the outdated methods of manual cutting and crimping on job sites across the country. The ergonomic shortcomings of manual cutters and crimpers include an increased risk of musculoskeletal disorders, sprains, strains, repetitive motion injuries, a number of soft tissue damages, and other injuries.

According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) study on upper body injuries involving the repetitive use of tools, approximately 61 percent involve injury to the hands and wrists, 20 percent involve injury to the shoulders, 10 percent involve injury to the arms, and 9 percent involve injury to the trunk and back. Signs of these musculoskeletal disorders include decreased range of motion, decreased grip strength, swelling, cramping, and loss of function. These injuries can include symptoms of numbness, pain, tingling, and stiffness. The reason manual tools cause this type of injury is due to the repetitive nature and prolonged force exertions and awkward postures of using manual tools.

Understanding the health and ergonomic benefits that battery-operated tools offer their employees, a company recently made a historic transition, requiring all trucks and crews to turn in their manual cutters and crimpers and switch to Greenlee Gator battery-operated tools. Simply making the switch to the Greenlee battery-operated tools eliminated many upper body injuries, substantially reduced the high forces of muscle exertion on the shoulder adductor and abductor muscles, decreased the peak forces of the flexor muscles in the forearm, and improved the postures from twisted and awkward trunk positions, among others. Overall, this company and others alike have seen a significant reduction in the number of injuries, thus improving the health and ergonomic safety of their workers.

ergolab3.gifChoosing the “right” tool for you

For those companies who have already outfitted their crews with battery- operated electrical tools, determining the ergonomic differences between two various brands of similarly performing tools can be a complex and a wide- ranging task to manage. Evaluating the ergonomic benefits of battery tools with the intention of uncovering the most ergonomically-efficient tool for a job can be accomplished through an ergonomic comparison analysis.

When conducting an ergonomic comparison analysis the following features should be considered:

MUSCLE EFFORT:

Using Electromyography (EMG) data, it is possible to measure the muscle effort used to perform a task. Using this data, you can compare multiple tools to discover which tools use the least and most muscle effort to perform a job.

TOOL WEIGHT:

Although weight alone does not designate a tool as ergonomic, it is a leading indicator of the overall ergonomic impact. Tools with reduced weight will decrease total muscle effort and reduce risk of ergonomic injuries.

GRIP SIZE:

Smaller handle sizes will accommodate the various hand sizes of a majority of users. Smaller handle diameter is a considerable advantage when comparing comfort benefits of the grip size.

TRIGGER DESIGN:

Inline triggers designs will improve grip biomechanics compared to pistol style trigger designs. Additionally, poor trigger designs combined with larger handle sizes will lessen the ergonomic benefits of a tool and will result in the increased hand muscle effort required to operate a tool.

WORKING POSTURES:

Tools that require less static postures to complete tasks show improved ergonomics. Additionally, jobs that inherently require awkward postures (working overhead or down low) benefit from adjustable tool heads. These heads provide users with options for holding and supporting the tool during task completion.

MANEUVERABILITY AND ADJUSTABILITY:

The ability to rotate the tool head will result in dramatic improvements in user posture and reduction in user effort. Tools with superior maneuverability and adjustability will fit into tighter spaces, while also improving working postures and overall user comfort.

SPEED:

While faster performing tools have gained in popularity due to time savings and increased productivity, the more important ergonomic benefit comes from reduction of time that the tool is in a worker’s hand. As the time in hand is reduced, the risk of ergonomic exposure is reduced and this relationship significantly correlates to a reduction in muscle effort and overall ergonomic impact.

Work Practice

Buying the right tool is only half the battle. Using it the correct way is the other half. This starts with training and knowing proper hand postures while engaging the trigger. Allowing a worker’s wrist to sit naturally while engaging the tool is an important aspect of ergonomic tool use. Wrists that display flexion (bending towards the palm) or extension (bending towards the back of your hand) during tool engagement increases risk of ergonomic injury, can cause inflammation in the carpal tunnel and lead to carpal tunnel syndrome. Additionally, work practices that display ulnar deviation (tilting the wrist towards the little finger) and radial deviation (tilting the wrist towards the thumb) often increases the risk for carpal tunnel syndrome, and it can lead to long term, irreparable injuries.

Evaluating the ROI

Having an ergonomist on staff tremendously helps the tool selection process. Others without ergonomists on staff are implementing ergonomic teams to evaluate tools and work practices for their ergonomic benefits and shortcomings. Applying ergonomic principles when evaluating and purchasing new tools will result in long and short term return on investment (ROI) benefits. These benefits include reductions in medical and workers’ compensation, reductions in retraining and replacement workers costs, and other variables. Additionally, companies that invest in hiring ergonomists are seeing the immediate impact ergonomics has on their bottom line; and because of this, many large companies are continuing to grow their investments in ergonomics.

ErgoLab2.gifWorkers First

Showing your workers that you care about their health and safety from their first day on the job into their retirement starts with using the right tools and correct work practices every time and all the time. Promoting the message of ergonomic safety not only benefits your workers now but also into their retirement and life after work. Designing tools to fit the worker is a common practice for Greenlee engineers. Undergoing ergonomic design training and displaying it through their innovations and advancements is a staple of the tool manufacturer.

Companies that are invested in their workers’ ergonomic safety experience:

  • Increased productivity;
  • Reduced worker medical and compensation costs;
  • Reduced employee turnover; and
  • A healthier and less injured work force

Many companies across North America are seeing a decline in musculoskeletal disorders attributed to using battery-operated tools. Employees that take advantage of ergonomically designed tools see benefits immediately and long into their working lives and retirement. Using ergonomically-designed tools can prevent initial injuries and help to prevent repeat injuries while simultaneously maximizing occupational health, ease of use, and productivity.

Ask Yourself

Does your company have an ergonomist evaluating the tools you use? If not, why not? If so, what questions are they asking when performing an ergonomic tool assessment?

Greenlee Textron launched the industry-first ergonomics laboratory in 2015. The Rockford-based laboratory offers state-of-the-art equipment to identify a tool’s ergonomic value through scientific testing, measurement and analysis. This analysis will help utility and electrical tools users, along with purchasing officers and decision makers determine the best tools to utilize on the job site. For more information, visit www.greenlee.com.