Certain industries and work environments expose workers to physical stress and hazardous conditions, resulting in work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) or repetitive motion injuries (RMIs). OSHA points out that MSDs can result "when there is a mismatch between the physical capacity of workers and the physical demands of their jobs," and it encourages organizations to use ergonomics to adjust work tasks to the people performing them.
Any job requiring lots of heavy lifting, repetitive motions, or awkward postures can put workers at risk for injuries, especially for assembly line and manufacturing workers and office staff. Even prolonged sitting with poor posture can exacerbate musculoskeletal (MSK) issues, leading to strain and back pain. With repetitive stress leading to increased MSDs at work, more organizations perform periodic ergonomic assessments to prevent injuries and absenteeism.
A thorough ergonomic assessment is fundamental to creating a safer, healthier work environment. Typically performed by a trained professional (often physical/occupational therapists), an ergonomic assessment formally evaluates employees' work tasks and work set up to identify injury risk factors. The evaluator should have specialized training on topics such as ergonomic and work process design principles before providing workplace assessments and recommending follow-up interventions.
What is an Eight-Step Industrial Ergonomics Assessment?
An industrial ergonomics assessment aims to assess workers at their workstations to ensure correct working postures and workstation setup. The outcome of a good ergonomic assessment is intended to reduce a worker's exposure to physical hazards such as uncomfortable postures, repetitive tasks, and body straining.
The assessment process consists of the evaluator conducting a series of steps.
Step 1: First, the evaluator must understand the reason for the requested assessment. Was this request made because the employee is in pain or has sustained an on-the-job injury? The assessment can also be part of a proactive onsite physical therapy program where industrial ergo assessments may be completed as part of worksite rounds.
Step 2: The assessment starts by reviewing existing Functional Job Descriptions (FJDs) to understand the critical physical demands of the job.
Step 3: Next, the evaluator interviews worker(s) who perform the job to gather their perspective on the job tasks or set up. It may be revealed that the worker believes the machine is set too high or lifting occurs more frequently than originally scoped.
Step 4: While at the worksite, the evaluator observes the job tasks and observes posture in six categories;
- Shoulders/upper back,
- Mid-low back,
- Legs and feet.
Step5: In each category, the evaluator gathers and records objective data such as force, duration, and frequency of task performance.
Step 6: Many other factors are considered, such as temperature, is it too hot or too cold? Is there vibration from using tools or operating equipment? Is there contact stress such as sharp edges from a tool bench? Is the lighting correct – too bright or too low? Do they use foot controls? All of these factors are taken into account during the evaluation.
Step 7: The evaluator generates recommendations and action plans for implementing interventions.
Step 8: Lastly, evaluate the outcome and periodically adjust interventions as needed.
What Ergonomic Assessments Reveal
An ergonomic assessment aims to identify and quantify job-related injury risk factors to improve worker safety and wellbeing. A detailed, objective study of employees in their workplace -- including furnishings and tools -- and all their work-related activities can reveal risk factors for MSK injury and physical stress in the job. Eliminating those risks can create a safer and more productive work environment, prevent future injuries, and encourage safer work and postural practices.
To successfully perform an ergonomic assessment, the evaluator typically goes through multiple steps, including 1) evaluating existing baseline data on workplace history and injury rates; 2) gathering subjective data from talking to workers, touring workplaces, and hands-on evaluation of real-life job scenarios, 3) using standardized ergonomic assessment tools to gather objective data on workplace conditions; then, finally 4) analyzing the data to quantify risk factors and reporting the results.
Benefits of Ergonomic Assessments
Ergonomic assessments are useful, but only if you act upon the findings. The assessment will produce a detailed, actionable report of workplace ergonomic risk factors, such as uncomfortable postures, poorly designed workstations, or repetitive tasks. The ergonomic evaluator can then recommend work modifications that better fit the health and capabilities of individual workers, support good posture, and require less exertion and/or fewer motions.
The next step is to create a strategy to reduce these risks and improve the ergonomics at your organization. The changes will help improve the well-being and productivity of employees while also making the organization more compliant with government regulatory guidelines. If workers aren't experiencing discomfort and fatigue during the day, you could benefit from more engaged employees who are less likely to switch jobs or take time off.
For over 25 years, WorkWell has trained our national network of highly qualified healthcare providers on our industry-leading workplace injury prevention and management methodologies. Our customized manufacturing/office ergonomic training program provides PT/OT therapists with the skills needed to implement effective ergonomic assessments and programs for our clients. To learn more about our offerings, download the brochure below.