In recent years, even work environments that are considered low-risk for injuries have begun conducting thorough ergonomic assessments. That’s because, while impact injuries and other serious injuries in the workplace are in decline, musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) related to repetitive stress are on the rise.
In fact, adults in the workplace reported nearly 364 million lost work days due to a musculoskeletal condition—more than any other chronic health condition, including chronic high blood pressure and heart conditions. Repetitive motions, such as twisting, pushing, lifting, and pulling, as well as prolonged sitting and poor posture can all cause or exacerbate musculoskeletal issues.
Performing a comprehensive ergonomic assessment is the first step for employers who want to reduce absenteeism related to back pain and other MSDs.
What is an Ergonomic Assessment?
An ergonomic assessment, also called an ergonomic risk assessment, is an objective measure of the risk factors in your work environment that may lead to musculoskeletal disorders or injuries among your workforce.The goal of an ergonomic assessment is to identify these risk factors and quantify them so that you can make measurable improvements in the work environment. A thorough ergonomic assessment is the foundation for creating a safer, healthier, less injury-prone workplace and improving overall workplace wellness. After conducting an ergonomic assessment, HR can take data-backed steps to reduce injury and increase comfort in their workplace. Some possible modifications for the office could include providing standing desks, adjustable chairs and workstations, footrests, ergonomic keyboards, and lumbar support. Manufacturing and industrial companies can improve the ergonomics for their employees by providing anti-fatigue standing mats, adjustable workstations, occupational therapy, and training to improve neck and shoulder posture.
5 Steps for Conducting an Ergonomic Assessment in the Workplace
At its core, conducting a successful ergonomic assessment is a simple process: Evaluate the work environment and evaluate how your workforce interacts with that environment. Of course, there’s more to it than that. But you should keep these broad goals in mind as you begin your ergonomic assessment so that you can analyze the specifics without getting bogged down in irrelevant details. Here are five foolproof steps for performing a successful ergonomic assessment:
1. Review any Existing Data
The first step to any ergonomics assessment is to take a workplace history and ensure that you understand your baseline. Look at claims data, workplace injury reports, worker’s compensation reports, first aid logs, and any other data you have available to become familiar with any work-related injuries or other incidents that have occurred at your workplace. As you’re reviewing this data, identify any higher-risk activities or departments as well as common injuries and complaints. This will help you focus your ergonomics assessment and improvement efforts on areas where you will see the most results.
2. Choose your Tools
During the final three steps of your ergonomics assessment, you’re going to gather and analyze current data about your workplace and workforce. Before you do this, it’s important to take a step back and determine how you will measure this data. Fortunately, you don’t have to invent these ergonomics measurements on your own. There are well-respected ergonomics assessment tools available in the public domain that have been developed by organizations such as the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. Here are some of the best available ergonomics assessment tools:
- WISHA Caution Zone Checklist
- WISHA Hazard Zone Checklist
- The NIOSH Lifting Equation
- Rapid Entire Body Assessment (REBA)
- Rapid Upper Limb Assessment (RULA)
- Liberty Mutual Manual Material Handling Tables (SNOOK Tables)
- Hand-Arm Vibration Calculator (HAV)
Most of these tools are easily accessible online and several have now developed mobile apps as well. Choose the tools that apply to your workplace or facilities and use these as the basis for gathering your objective data.
3. Gather Subjective Data
Rather than jumping right in with your chosen tools and measuring ergonomic risk factors, we recommend starting with a hands-on, subjective evaluation of your current workplace. Begin by walking the floor or the offices to get a real-life understanding of the environment your employees are working in and making notes about any problem areas you see. Remember to be critical and look at your workplace the way an outsider might see it—come to it with fresh eyes. During your walk-through, pull employees aside for a quick conversation about their working conditions. By involving your employees in the process, you can increase the likelihood of early buy-in and support for any future changes. This step will also yield valuable, first-hand accounts and insights that you may not be able to get in any other way. Be sure to explain your objectives thoroughly and encourage open, honest feedback. Ask your employees questions such as:
- Does your job involve any repetitive motion?
- How often do you experience pain or discomfort while on the job?
- Do you get tired while performing your job?
- Do you ever feel unsafe while performing your job?
- Can you think of anything that would increase your comfort, energy, or feelings of safety while at work?
- If you were me, what would you do to improve the work environment?
In addition to face-to-face conversations with individual employees, larger workplaces may want to conduct an employee comfort survey to gather more direct feedback.
4. Gather Objective Data
After you’ve reviewed your work injury history, walked your workplace, and solicited direct feedback, use all of that information to develop a prioritized list of work activities and departments that you need to evaluate. Use the ergonomics assessment tools you’ve chosen to measure your risk factors and complete your objective evaluation.
5. Analyze All Data and Prioritize Risk
Finally, pull all information and insights together to create a prioritized list of risk factors and risk reduction opportunities. Analyze your existing data as well as the new subjective and objective data you gathered during the assessment in its entirety and by task and department. Identify key insights and opportunities for risk mitigation, and prioritize these opportunities by the potential for injury and injury severity. We also recommend identifying areas for short-term and long-term impact. Once you’ve completed these five steps, you’ll have developed a thorough, actionable report of all ergonomic risk factors. You’re ready to create a strategy to reduce these risks and improve the ergonomics at your workplace.