Ergonomics aims to understand the implications of an environment’s effects on human beings. Ergonomics experts work to ensure that the job fits the worker, rather than forcing the worker to fit the job, with the aim of preventing work-related injuries and unhealthy work practices. Failure to correct ergonomic issues can lead to compensation claims, disability costs, and lost workdays.
While there are many issues facing ergonomics experts, some are more pressing than others. Periodically performing Occupational Safety and Health Association (OSHA) reviews of workstations and work practices can help identify existing problems, analyze the underlying issues, and generate solutions.
Lower back pain is a frequently reported ergonomic issue. This is often caused by everyday work activities such as sitting in a chair not suited to your body or lifting heavy objects using an improper lifting technique (for information on proper lifting, see Safe Lifting: Use Your Brain, Not Your Back).
Two types of workplace conditions cause workers to experience back pain:
- Repetitive stress injuries (RSI) that result from work events that are non-accidents. Poor posture, repetitive movement, or prolonged sitting or standing causes pain.
- Repetitive motion injuries (RMI) caused by repeated motion such as carpal tunnel injury and neck stress from scanning items or typing.
Musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) cause damage to the worker’s muscles, nerves, blood vessels, ligaments, or tendons. MSDs can include carpal tunnel syndrome, rotator cuff injuries, trigger finger, tendinitis, epicondylitis, lower back injuries, and strained muscles.
Workers who do heavy lifting, twisting, bending, reaching, stretching, pushing, or tugging heavy loads often sustain injuries resulting from accidents such as slipping or falling. Some occupations, including nursing, early childhood education, childcare, and construction, also put workers at increased risk because they have to assume awkward body postures while performing their daily tasks (see Risk Factors for Developing Musculoskeletal Disorders to learn more).
MSDs are the most reported injuries and the ones that cause the greatest worker absenteeism. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) found that these injuries account for one in every three worker-reported injuries.
Work-related musculoskeletal disorders are largely preventable. Ergonomics specialists say that showing workers proper procedures and providing aids like back braces will help decrease muscle fatigue. This, in turn, increases productivity and decreases the number and severity of MSDs.
On Demand Ergonomics Webinar - Sitting Disease and Ergonomics: Evidence & Best Practice Solutions
Cumulative Trauma Disorders
Cumulative trauma disorders (CTD) result from the body’s inability to complete the natural body movements of contracting and relaxing muscles. Tendons normally glide back and forth inside synovial sheaths, which lubricate them with synovial fluid. Cumulative trauma disorders occur when work places repeated stress on tendons, muscles, or nerves. The result is inflammation or damage.
The most common CTDs include:
- Inflammation of the tendons (tendinitis)
- Inflammation of the synovial sheath (tendonsynovitis)
- Compression of the median nerve, when there is swelling of tendons and sheaths or repeated wrist bending (carpal tunnel)
Certain work movements like prolonged time typing or operating a mouse produce CTDs. Other negative work habits causing CTDs include prolonged or poor posture where, for example, the spine isn’t straight or the wrists or knees are bent. Another habit that causes CTDs is prolonged time at a workstation, such as a keyboard or screen with few (if any) breaks or posture changes (also consider How Your Computer's Display Settings May Influence Your Back and Neck).
You might have developed CTDs if you notice these symptoms:
- Fingers, palms, fingers, wrists, legs, or hands feel numb, tingly, or “asleep”
- Hands or feet feel achy, throbbing, or in pain
- Hands or fingers feel weak or poorly coordinated
- Feelings of sharp pain, tingling, burning, or numbness wakes you or keeps you awake at night
- Discomfort in the hands, which wakes you up at night
Cumulative trauma injuries (CTI) include head and upper body, and arm and back injuries. These can be cumulative or single incident mishaps. Together, they affect such parts as muscles, tendons, and ligaments.
CTIs are caused by prolonged postures like sitting, standing, kneeling, and repeated movements. CTIs result in overloaded muscles, which cannot recover.