Hopefully, you’ve heard this enough. The true definition of ergonomics is to reduce the presence of musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) risk factors in the workplace. But are MSD risk factors different from safety risk factors? This article takes a look at how the inherent differences between the two categories may be impacting your efforts to reduce your company’s overall injury rate.
First of all, safety is governed by OSHA in the U.S. and typically has specific thresholds associated with hazards. Consider how you manage risks associated with noise, lighting, and machine guarding. There are known thresholds and standards that will determine appropriate action by your safety department. Failure to implement those actions may result in fines when audited. Even worse, your employees may suffer the consequences of serious, debilitating injuries.
Now, consider the management of MSD risk factors, which is the focus of any world-class ergonomics process. There is no government standard to measure your efforts against, so many companies struggle to define their course of action. OSHA can only fine your company for an ergonomics violation through the General Duty Clause (which is not specific to ergonomics.)
This brings me to the main point. Because of known expectations via safety standards, companies have become very good at reducing safety risk. Historical injury rates tell us that. Unfortunately, MSD rates have leveled off. This is because MSD risk factors are different from safety risk factors, and need to be managed differently.
Consider this scenario. Five years ago, company X focused on reducing common safety issues (slips, trips and falls, lacerations, burns, etc.) and, as a result of their efforts, saw a significant drop in their incidence rate. BUT those issues that have root causes associated with MSD risk factors increased, and now sit atop of their priority list. Sound familiar?
Many companies have a very good handle on lowering the risks associated with fatalities, amputations, and other life-altering injuries, but have not yet focused on eliminating MSD risk factors. The incidents associated with poor ergonomic design have always been on the OSHA log, they are just now rising to the top of your priority list with the decrease in safety-related incidents. Much like when a land bridge appears after water levels fall—land was always there, but comes to the forefront when water level is lower.
Tying this back to the initial discussion, let’s conclude with this: as safety issues are reduced, many companies struggle with lingering ergonomics issues. Those issues were always there, they were just not managed properly. Do ergonomics the right way. Manage the MSD risk factors and aim to mitigate those risks through appropriate engineering solutions.