Have you ever been performing an ergonomic analysis at a workstation and observed an employee exerting a force you thought didn’t need to be measured? What about a time when you interviewed an employee about the weight of an object and he replied, “It’s pretty light.” A comprehensive 2012 study published in the Journal of the International Association for the Study of Pain found that pain perception in contact-oriented athletes was significantly lower than in non-athletes, due to psychological and psychosocial factors. Basically, that’s a fancy way of saying that if you’re used to it, you don’t really notice how bad it is.
An industrial athlete is very similar to a professional athlete in that they are both taught how to perform a certain job given their inherent skills, motivation, training, and equipment. However, industrial athletes perform their jobs between 32 and 60 hours per week and up to 40 years of their lives. Industrial athletes, not unlike professional athletes, grow accustomed to pain thresholds that are much higher than someone who does not experience the demands of that job and therefore develop higher pain tolerances pertaining to high forces.
An example of this is having an office employee begin a new job as a brick layer. The brick layer thinks that frequently lifting the weight of the bricks is a not big deal. The office employee, initially, will disagree. Over time, though, the office employee will become accustomed to the bricklaying tasks. It is possible for industrial athletes to perceive objects they frequently handle to be light, when in reality they are lifting in excess of 45 lbs repeatedly!
As an ergonomist, I would encourage you to measure all of the forces exerted by your employees throughout the facility. Perception is relative each person and no risk can truly be mitigated if nothing is ever measured. Take the time to record all the pushes, pulls, lifts, lowers, and carries you can; you might be surprised at what you find!