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Applying ergonomics to improve health

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Margaret Hanson, Principal Ergonomist with Hu-Tech Ergonomics looks at how to adjust the workplace environment to keep musculoskeletal disorders and stress at bay.


The Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) latest figures on work-related ill health make for sobering reading; they reveal the most common health problems arising from work as Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSDs = aches and pains) and stress.

The data shows that annually in the UK over 1.1 million people experience MSDs which they believe to be caused or made worse by their work. This results in over 12 million lost working days in the UK, with a consequential significant cost to business.

About half as many people (557,000) experience stress considered to be caused or made worse by their work. This results in approximately 13.4 million days sickness absence annually. Calculating the cost of sickness absence to your business can identify some surprises, and is often a motivator for action.

What causes these health problems?
MSDs and stress are caused by a variety of factors; they are not always caused by work activities although they often contribute to them.

Aches and pains typically arise when the body is over-used. This may be due to repetition of the same movements frequently, the adoption of awkward postures (for example bending and twisting) or static postures, the application of force, repeated heavy handling, working for long periods without a break, high job demands, time pressures or lack of control.

Many jobs contain these risk factors, and no workplace is free of the potential for aches and pains to arise as a result of work. Computer users, assembly workers, hairdressers and construction workers are some of the groups that are known to be at particular risk.

HSE defines stress as ‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed on them’. Pressure is a normal part of all work and helps to keep us motivated. But excessive pressure can lead to stress which undermines performance, is costly to employers and can make people ill. Factors that can cause work related stress include poor communication, excessive demands, inadequate support and low control over work.

What can be done?
The moral and economic arguments for ensuring that work and workplaces do not damage health are clear, and the application of ergonomics in the workplace (that is ensuring the task, equipment, furniture and environment suit the users) is an important approach in preventing these problems.

Applying an understanding of human capability to the design of workplaces, equipment or systems can help to ensure they will be suitable for those who use them.

For example, although aches and pains are common, many simple measures can be taken to prevent them including:

  • ensuring that equipment and furniture are suitable for the user, for example tools do not have hard edges that may compress hand tissue and do not require excessive force to hold or operate; chairs (including car seats for business drivers) are adequately adjustable and supportive for the user; footrests are provided where required; work benches are a suitable height for those working at them.

  • laying out the workstation to facilitate good posture, for example items are not placed so that users have to stretch to reach them.

  • ensuring loads handled are well within individuals’ capabilities (by dividing the load, ensuring the load is easy to hold, has handles, is stable etc).

  • scheduling tasks in such a way as to allow regular breaks and changes in activity.

  • ensuring instructions and commands (for those in ATMs or automated phone services etc) are clear to read and understandable.

The key in considering these measures is to ensure that demands are not excessive in relation to the abilities of the individuals, that is that workplaces are ergonomically designed.

An understanding of ergonomics can help prevent the common design mistakes of assuming that if it is ok for you, or for the ‘average’ person, it will be ok for everyone else.

Clearly there are significant differences between people, for example in size, strength, visual ability, and mental capacity including memory and understanding.

Taking account of these differences will result in workplaces that are designed to suit the range of different individuals, and thus reduce the risk of aches and pains, as well as helping to ensure workers are more comfortable, more satisfied with their work, and make fewer mistakes.

Although ergonomics expertise may be required in some situations, solutions to common problems can often be identified by the workers themselves with the support of a health and safety or HR professional with some training in ergonomics; consultation with the users is vital in ensuring a design will be suitable.

Similarly, stress can be reduced by ensuring that the work demands match the individuals’ capabilities. Identifying problems and solutions may require consultation with the workforce; HSE has produced useful guidance showing how to start tackling stress within an organisation.

Legal situation and guidance
There are legal obligations on companies to assess and reduce work related risks under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. There is also specific legislation relating to computer work and manual handling, which are known risk activities.

HSE are particularly focused on helping companies tackle MSDs and stress, and have provided useful guidance to help companies tackle these issues. Further information and free leaflets are available from their website (www.hse.gov.uk/msd for information on musculoskeletal risks, and www.hse.gov.uk/stress for information on stress).

Although work related health problems are common, it is possible to reduce these health risks by designing the workplace, equipment, task demands and the way the job is done so they are appropriate for the users. Not only can this help reduce ill health associated with work, but it can also benefit the bottom line.

For further information about ergonomics, see the Ergonomics Society website: www.ergonomics.org.uk

Margaret Hanson is a Principal Ergonomist with Hu-Tech Ergonomics. She has advised a wide range of companies on ways of reducing ergonomic risks in the workplace, and regularly runs training courses on ergonomics. She can be contacted on [email protected] or see www.hu-tech.co.uk for further information.

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