Chapter Corner

Seven Impacts of Ergonomics

Posted in: Features, May/June 2018

Money is tight in our industry. Businesses are working to perform the job faster and more competitive to win bids and grow revenue. May is National Electrical Safety Month — a good time to direct attention to the most important asset in your company, the people. Safety discussions should include ergonomics and the seven ways that ergonomics may impact your staff every day.
The primary purpose of ergonomics is to decrease work-related injuries. With the rising cost of healthcare, the fees associated with injuries are mounting. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the average cost of a repetitive stress injury in the construction industry is just over $100,000 (US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, 2007). To combat expensive injuries, ergonomics alters the physical demands placed upon workers matched to their abilities. An electrician performing physical work exceeding their body's capacity is at risk of injury. To reduce risk of injury, a change to their work environment or the tools they use is recommended. A professional's ability to perform a task will depend on many things: 
  • Strength
  • Height
  • Flexibility
  • Fatigue from previous tasks
  • Lingering muscle strain
  • Previous injury

When workers push beyond their limits they damage their muscles, tendons, and ligaments. The strain placed on their body may not result in long-term damage if ample rest time is provided, but many times the job comes first, and adequate rest and recovery is not achieved. To safeguard motivated workers from overexertion, perform routine checks of job tasks. 

Ergonomics specifically addresses the chronic and cumulative nature of musculoskeletal disorders (MSD). MSD injuries can lead to strain and damage the body, including damage to joints and cartilage that typically require surgery to repair. This is especially problematic for load bearing joints like the back, knees,and hips, because they are regularly under stress over the course of a lifetime.
Injuries, especially MSD injuries, tend to be costly. Costs for both the injured individual and their company, particularly in the form of recovery time and the physical therapy needed to rehab an employee. Many injuries become chronic or reoccur because people attempt to return to work too quickly.
As an electrician ages and healing slows, a worker may lose the ability to cope with the strain of their day-today job requirements; traditionally, it is during this period that chronic injuries caused by years of work and strain become apparent. These painful and sometimes debilitating injuries can lead to decreased ability to perform daily activities or forced retirement. 
What could a decrease in ability look like? A worker might lose the ability to lift their hands overhead. A doctor may place weight restrictions on what they can carry. Injuries from work can impact your life outside of work, too. Chronic injuries can limit sports with friends; playing catch with children or grandchildren; and other active hobbies, such as golf, fishing, hunting, or even working on a car. Injuries can also limit travel experiences, as the person might be unable to sit in a car or on a plane for long periods of time. A decrease in physical ability can reduce the ability to accomplish retirement goals. 
Taking the time to rest is the most common treatment to heal damaged muscles. While muscles heal relatively quickly, other injuries, such as tendons and ligaments, require longer healing times. According to the BLS, sprains, strains, and tears take a median value of ten days to heal, while tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome take 15 and 32 days, respectively. 
Ergonomics helps decrease the strain before it causes an injury.
Many factors that lead to an injury are often ignored until it is too late. Electricians can begin to lose ability before they suffer from an actual injury. Ergonomics can prevent the silent symptoms of an MSD injury and even help
stop them before they start. An MSD injury is typically addressed only after a worker loses their ability to complete a job. In many businesses, an incident investigation is often conducted retroactively to identify and address hazards.
There are tell-tale signs and symptoms of an MSD injury that exist before an employee becomes incapacitated. An early warning sign of an injury is discomfort without pain. Pain is part of the body’s inflammation process that
begins destroying healthy tissue. Many professionals will ignore the pain and try to work through it. This only aggravates the inflammation and prevents the body from healing. During this stage of MSD, the user will display less strength, endurance, coordination, and possibly less flexibility. This loss of ability will show up later as workers become slow to complete jobs, take longer breaks, and require more assistance from others. Aside from the pain related to physical injuries, their slower work impacts jobsite productivity.
Ergonomics does more than help prevent injury, it can also boost a worker’s productivity. A workstation design centered around ergonomics focuses on tool placement and movement patterns. Seconds shaved off each
step means more work is completed in the same amount of time. Such workstations assist the professional in completing tasks more efficiently.
To boost productivity or cut down on time required to complete jobs, a robust ergonomics program is a good option. A well-thought-out workstation design also eliminates physical strain. Workers that experience less strain will not tire as quickly and will require less recovery time. Electricians that do not have time to rest and recover will have a steady decrease in work rate because they are fatigued and sore. 
In addition to enhancing productivity, ergonomics makes a person physically feel better. By making the workstations and tools fit staff, tasks become easier and produce less fatigue. When fatigue is reduced and the strain upon the body is minimized, workers will be less sore and tired at the end of the day. Additionally,there is less long-term damage to the body. Electricians will end the day and be able to enjoy time outside of work.
Another benefit of a good ergonomics program is a boost of morale at work. Safety programs and assessments often have a negative perception because many assume that it is just a time for people outside their organization to criticize how employees perform their job, or it’s an excuse to prescribe training. Ergonomics takes a different approach.
Ergonomics evaluates how a worker performs a task or job. If there is a problem or a safety concern, recommended ergonomic solutions are often adjustments to the workstation or tools. Professionals appreciate being heard when they have complaints about how their tasks cause discomfort. An ergonomic assessment looks at the work setup rather than how the job is completed.
Implementing ergonomic improvements is a great way to demonstrate to employees you care for their well-being. When the health of employees is a priority, supervisors are empowered to ask their electricians to change habits for the benefit of all involved. Listening to the employees’ needs instead of demanding they change increases morale, which can improve productivity.
Ergonomics is an underutilized aspect of safety in many organizations. Neglecting safety and MSD risks can cause large financial burdens for the business, as well as placing a large burden on the workers as they do their jobs. An investment that implements ergonomic changes can make a measurable difference in a business and the lives of staff. When ergonomic solutions are introduced, such as redesigned workstations, automation of dangerous tasks, and using ergonomically designed tools, everyone will see and experience how the human impact of ergonomics makes a business a safer and more positive work environment.
Jacob Thomas was named Ergonomic Specialist for Greenlee Textron in August 2016. He is responsible for consulting with the engineering team to design new ergonomic tools, concepting and executing testing for new Greenlee products, and educating customers on the impacts of ergonomics in the industry.
Jacob is a Certified Exercise Physiologist, certified by the American College of Sports Medicine. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Exercise Science: Biomechanics from the University of Delaware and a Masters of Arts in Teaching from Johns Hopkins University. Jacob has completed more than 90 credit hours in the Doctor of Physical Therapy program at Duquesne University.
He has overseen the revitalization of Greenlee’s ErgoLab® and an increase in the rigor of ergonomic studies performed. Jacob continues to integrate ergonomics into Greenlee’s tools, manufacturing and marketing. He seeks to continue improving the scientific standards for ergonomics in the industry while promoting the health
and career longevity of tradesmen.