Savvy fabricators with laser cutting equipment look for efficiencies where they can get them, which includes adding automation for material handling operations. However, most shops still require workers to do a fair amount of lifting per shift, which makes them vulnerable to injury.
Implementing workplace health and safe movement initiatives allows fabricators to take proactive measures to deal with any potential health issues affecting their employees. This is particularly important for the following reasons:
- A large number of on-the-job injuries occur from incorrect body movement.
- Obesity rates continue to rise.
- There is a steady increase of inactivity among Americans.
- Medical care costs continue to rise.
- There is an increase in stress-related illnesses.
Ergonomics, essentially, is a term for the study of how workers perform their jobs more efficiently in their work environment. The goal of most manufacturers employing an ergonomic strategy is to find more fluid, natural ways for the body to move to achieve a task in the workplace. This helps to reduce stress and injury while also improving production.
Fabricators rely on material handling equipment for large objects, however, workers must still do some amount of lifting, which makes them vulnerable to injury.
Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSDs), according to OSHA, are injuries of the muscles, nerves, tendons, ligaments, joints, cartilage and spinal discs. Symptoms include a dull aching sensation, discomfort with specific movements, tenderness to the touch, a burning sensation, pain, tingling, cramping or stiffness. These symptoms appear gradually and may disappear during rest. The most common problems occur in the neck, lower back, shoulders, elbows, wrists and hands.
The first step to avoid MSDs is to be aware of every motion that can cause problems. Some of the primary risk factors for MSDs, according to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, include:
- Work postures and movements
- Repetitiveness and pace of work
- Force of movements
- Monotonous tasks
All of these risk factors can increase, depending on how a worker lifts objects and moves their body while they perform tasks. With a proper understanding of the risk factors, avoiding MSDs becomes a more achievable goal.
Symptoms for musculoskeletal disorders appear gradually and may disappear during rest. The most common problems occur in the neck, lower back, shoulders, elbows, wrists and hands.
Focus on flexibility
When the body isn’t prepared to move in a certain way, strains turn into nagging injuries, or in the worst cases, a disability. With a focus on flexibility, many MSDs can be avoided. Stretching before work, according to the Mayo Clinic, can help improve joint range of motion while reducing risk of injury.
While studies about stretching before athletic activities offer mixed results (some sprinters and jumpers experience decreased strength after stretching), the goal of stretching before tackling workplace activities is about getting muscles ready for specific work-related movements to reduce the risk of injury.
In this video, ergonomics in virtually any work environment is the focus. Watch to learn more about proper posture, managing forces and excessive repetitive motion.
According to the Mayo Clinic, stretching can help:
- Range of motion in joints
- Decrease risk of injuries
- Increase blood flow to the muscles
- Enable muscles to work most effectively
The best strategy for stretching, according to the Mayo Clinic, is to focus on major muscle groups and muscles that are used routinely for work. The major muscle groups include calves, thighs, hips, lower back, neck and shoulders. Most workers should also focus on stretching muscles that control movement in the hands and wrists.
Improper lifting generally involves pain and troubles that can be avoided. By following a few lifting tips, workers can avoid pain, injury and missing work to recover.
The first step before lifting is to determine if the size of the load is too heavy. If it is, breaking it down to a manageable size is recommended. How it will be lifted is also a factor – if it’s too awkward, injury can occur, which means a second worker should be brought in for assistance.
Another tip every material handler should know is to always lift with their legs. Many workers lift with their backs because it is most often a time saver. However, leg muscles are made to lift large loads without injury, whereas the back is not.
Additionally, avoid lifting and twisting in the same motion. The first objective should be to get the material off the ground or shelf, and then, once the legs are straight, move with the legs instead of twisting the waist and lower back.
Mayo Clinic tips on how to lift properly include:
- Begin lifting from a safe position, back straightened
- Make sure the natural curve in the lower back is maintained
- Avoid twisting
- Squat instead of kneeling
- Use the legs to lift, not the back
There are just as many bad ways to handle material as there are proper ways, and those who do it wrong are making these common mistakes: twisting, reaching for objects, sideways bending and lifting unequally.
OSHA has identified a number of potential hazards related to awkward postures that lead to MSDs. For example, bending while lifting causes the back to support the weight of the upper body and the object being lifted. The object doesn’t have to be heavy to cause injury in this situation. Another problem with bending is that it moves the load away from the body, increasing the leverage on the back, which increases stress and fatigues muscles. Reaching also moves the load away from the body, creating undo strain on shoulders.
Injured workers often have put uneven pressure on their spine by carrying loads on a shoulder or under an arm. Even carrying a load in one hand rather than two can create uneven pressure that leads to spinal MSDs.
The solution many workers use is to keep the item close to their bodies when lifting, especially from a low location. Workers handling materials should store them in the “power zone,” which is between mid-thigh and mid-chest. This minimizes the need to bend and make mistakes. OSHA recommends to never start a vertical lift below mid-thigh or end it above shoulder height due to the stress that such movement places on the legs, knees, back, shoulder and arms.
Workers can avoid twisting motions by making turns by using their feet rather than twisting their torso. Keeping elbows close to the body also helps to prevent bad movement.
OSHA also offers the following tips to reduce MSDs:
- Use ladders or aerial lifts to elevate workers closer to materials
- Create smaller loads out of big loads to minimize strain per lift
- Carry loose items in buckets with handles
- If moving material from truck beds, use roll-out decks to bring the material closer to workers
Many workers lift with their backs because it’s faster, but to avoid injury, lifting with the legs is safer. Leg muscles are made to lift large loads whereas the back is not.
Processes into play
To ensure that employees are aware of the proper way to handle and move material to decrease injury, it’s essential that management take a role in the process. According to OSHA, there are several important elements of an ergonomic risk management process:
- Provide management support – In addition to exhibiting a strong commitment by management, clear goals and objectives should be defined and discussed with workers. It’s also helpful to assign responsibilities to designated staff members.
- Involve workers – Directly involve workers in worksite assessments, solution development and implementation by allowing them to:
- Identify and provide important information about hazards.
- Voice concerns and suggestions for reducing exposure and then evaluate the changes made.
- Provide training – Training ensures that workers are aware of ergonomics and its benefits, become informed about ergonomics related concerns in the workplace and understand the importance of reporting early symptoms of MSDs.
- Identify problems – Identifying and assessing ergonomic problems in the workplace reduces the chance of MSDs.
- Encourage early reporting – Early reporting of MSD symptoms can accelerate the job assessment and improvement process and help to prevent or reduce the progression of symptoms, development of serious injuries and subsequent lost-time claims.
- Implement solutions – When possible solutions are implemented, the chance to reduce, control and eliminate workplace MSDs increases.
- Evaluate progress – To assess the effectiveness of the ergonomic process and to ensure its continuous improvement and long-term success, establish evaluation and corrective action procedures. Assessments should include determining whether goals have been met as well as the success of the overall ergonomic solutions.
Finally, consider having an ergonomics evaluation through a local chiropractic or physical therapy group. They can make recommendations for a safer workplace and may even suggest a few simple warm up exercises that employees can do while their machines are warming up.