Ergonomically correct Featured

7:00pm EDT February 24, 2008

While the term “ergonomics” may sound unfamiliar, it should be on the mind of any employer that’s concerned about creating and maintaining a healthy and safe work environment.

Good ergonomics leads to good business, according to David M. Weir, president of UPMC Work Partners, a full-service provider of clinical and administrative services.

“Ergonomics focuses on the relationship between the worker and the job,” Weir says.

Many companies that used to worry about the bottom line when it came to ergonomics now understand that it’s really a way to make the work environment safer and, therefore, more efficient and more productive.

Smart Business spoke with Weir about ergonomics in the workplace and how it can be beneficial to businesses.

Why should an employer be concerned about ergonomics?

Ergonomics is simply the science of fitting jobs to people. To do that, you have to design work environments to maximize safety and efficiency. A safe work environment is a productive work environment. Employers need to be concerned about ergonomics because by maximizing safety and efficiency, you increase production. A work environment that reduces the number of on-the-job injuries will mean fewer lost days and, therefore, more productivity.

Essentially, ergonomics focuses on the basic relationship between the worker and the job. Thus, attention is placed on the design of work areas to enhance job performance. You introduce ergonomics into the work area in order to help prevent injuries and to limit secondary injuries. It also serves to accommodate individuals with various disabilities. By arranging the work environment to fit the people who have to function within it, you can reduce visual and musculoskeletal discomfort significantly.

What should an employer look for in an ergonomics program?

Employers need to take an inventory of the worksite to determine what they need to do to move toward the goal of having a hazard-free and worker-safe environment. To create such an environment, one should focus both on workplace design and staff training. If your employees are taught to follow basic ergonomic principles, this can result in reduced stress and the elimination of many potential injuries and disorders that are associated with the overuse of muscles, bad posture and repeated tasks. Ergo-nomics is used to do such things as redesigning workspaces, altering lighting and changing equipment to fit the physical capabilities and limitations of the employee. Most importantly, employers need to let employees know that good ergonomics is an enforceable expectation.

What specific industries are in need of an ergonomics program?

The types of work that cause problems are not always obvious. For instance, back pain can be caused by sitting in an uncomfortable office chair for long periods of time as well as by a job that requires much heavy lifting. Ergonomics can help in both areas. In the first, it might be a case of finding the proper chair and teaching an employee how to take periodic work breaks to reduce back stress. In the second instance, ergonomics can be used to teach employees how best to lift heavy objects while doing the least amount of harm to their backs.

How can ergonomics help improve work environments?

Ergonomics can be used to help minimize the risk of repetitive injury, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, and the risks associated with prolonged sitting in an office chair, such as neck strain, lower back pain and leg pain. Equipment changes, such as using a headset if someone does lengthy or frequent work on the telephone, can make a big difference. Back pain is a common work-related injury in jobs that require heavy lifting. Quantitative methods can be used to evaluate workplaces and determine those areas that can most benefit from design and placement changes. When critical areas are identified, they can be redesigned to maximize the ergonomic impact. Staff members should be taught to understand their ergonomic environments.

How can ergonomics help a company’s bottom line?

If you have a work environment that produces fewer injuries and illnesses, it will follow that you will have fewer workers’ compensation costs. Productivity will increase if the job is easier, therefore leading to greater efficiency. Those types of gains are tangible. Less quantifiable, but equally valuable to a company, are the benefits a company derives from increased efficiency, increased employee morale, and also from decreased absenteeism and turnover.

Employing the principles of ergonomics doesn’t have to be costly. There are simple adjustments that can be made. Changes such as using a rolled-up towel on a chair for lumbar support, raising the height of your computer with a telephone book or using a book to prop up your feet can be beneficial. There is a lot you can do that doesn’t cost a lot of money. You can also look at the work environment — the lighting, the sound, the noise, the temperature and the glare. All such things are important and easy to adjust.

DAVID M. WEIR is the president of UPMC Work Partners. Reach him at (412) 454-8720 or weirdm@upmc.edu.