22 Feb Wellness and Ergonomics – why we should care
Ergonomics is essentially about creating a work environment that is in harmony with the people who work in it. As a result, the risk of injury is reduced, working is more comfortable and less tiring, and quality and productivity are improved. Ergonomics achieves this by minimizing people’s exposure to risk factors that can lead to problems such as soft tissue injuries, also known as musculoskeletal disorders.
Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) affect the muscles and tendons; blood vessels; and peripheral nerves. Usually they are caused by repeated motions of the body that are not in the natural range of motions for that part of the body.
There are specific parts of our bodies that are particularly vulnerable to MSDs. Typical MSDs include lower back pain, neck pain, tendonitis, carpel tunnel syndrome, arthritis, and tennis elbow. Around two thirds of work related MSDs are repetitive strain injuries; these alone cost over $20 billion a year in compensation pay-outs to workers. Medical costs of MSDs amount to around $50 billion a year.
Ergonomic Risk Factors
As mentioned, the function of ergonomics is to reduce exposure to risk factors. While these depend on the specific environment, some of the more ergonomic risk factors include:
- High task repetition
- Forceful exertions
- Sustained or repetitive awkward postures
- Continuous keyboard use
- Use of power tools
- Poor lighting
- Cold temperatures
Some people are more susceptible to MSDs, in particular people who smoke, who are overweight or obese, suffer psychological problems such as depression and anxiety, have medical conditions such as diabetes or pre-existing musculoskeletal problems, and whose lifestyle doesn’t allow sufficient recovery time. Age is also a factor.
There is a direct correlation between workers’ compensation costs and body mass index (BMI). Workers with BMIs under 25 have compensation costs which are less than a third of those with BMIs between 30 and 40.
The Ergonomics and Wellness Synergy
Clearly there is a close relationship between ergonomics and wellness, and companies that operate them independently could be missing out on a huge potential synergy. Improving wellness will inevitably improve safety, while improving safety will inevitably improve wellness. Integrating ergonomics and wellness activities will create and environment in which both will be optimized.
Here are a few examples where such synergies are apparent:
- MSDs and obesity – there is a clear correlation between the propensity to sustain MSDs and BMI (Kort M, 2002). Moreira-Silva et al (2013) showed that overweight and obesity correlates with musculoskeletal pain and related symptoms in shoulders, wrists and hands among workers. By tacking obesity problems amongst the workforce through a wellness program, the incidence of MSDs will be reduced.
- MSDs and smoking – MSDs are more prevalent amongst workers who smoke. They also have higher levels of a COHgb, a red blood cell that increases their risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. A combination of this and exposure to normally sub-lethal levels of carbon monoxide in the workplace have resulted in at least one fatality.
- Fitness and MSDs – these are also closely related. People who have a high level of fitness have a significantly lower level of MSDs.
Those are just a few of the many examples where wellness and safety are closely related, and where a unified approach to both of these will deliver greater return on investment than addressing them as standalone issues. For more information on how this works in practice, please see our information on the Ergonomics Plus System.
Kort M, (2002). The association between musculoskeletal disorders and obesity. Australian Health Review, 25(6), 207-14
Isabel Moreira-Silva, Rute Santos, Sandra Abreu, Jorge Mota (2013), Associations Between Body Mass Index and Musculoskeletal Pain and Related Symptoms in Different Body Regions Among Workers, DOI: 10.1177/2158244013491952, June 2013