Ergonomics and the workplace

There's been a lot of talk in recent years about “ergonomics”. Ergonomics is the study of the relationship between people and their work environments, which is very important to both health and safety. Good ergonomics adapt the job to fit the person rather than forcing the person to fit the job. In an ergonomic workplace, tasks and tools are designed to fit individual capabilities and limitations so people can do their jobs without being injured.


Ergonomics has emerged as a hot issue because it shows the link between certain types of injuries and the ways in which people perform their jobs. We now realize that the human body can only stay in awkward or unnatural positions for so long without paying a price.


The study of ergonomics, both in general and in terms of specific tasks and motions, has helped to identify what types of positions and movements can cause physical pain and injury, as well as ways to prevent these problems.


This article will explore ergonomics and how to avoid the poor ergonomics that put our bodies at risk. Take this discussion very seriously. After all, ergonomics affects each of us personally. We're the ones who get aches and pains when tasks or tools have poor ergonomic design.  In addition, you are the only one who knows when you are experiencing pain and strain, and you're the one who's best able to determine what tasks, tools, and positions cause those symptoms. By being alert to problems, you can help identify injury causes and solutions. That means you play an essential role in helping your company create a workplace in which you can work productively and comfortably.


General hazards

Poor ergonomics leads to a number of serious physical problems. Often, we brush off the symptoms that could help us identify problems at an early stage. But that's the worst possible thing to do. With the types of physical problems discussed here, it's important to deal with them as soon as possible. If you wait until the pain is too much to bear, you may already have permanent damage.


Probably the most talked-about physical problem resulting from poor ergonomics is musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). MSDs are the fastest-growing occupational concerns. MSDs develop over long periods of time. They're painful, sometimes even crippling, conditions that affect nerves, tendons, tendon sheaths and muscles, especially in the arms, hands and wrists. MSDs are sometimes called “repetitive motion syndrome” because repetitive motion is one common cause of this problem. Other causes include forceful exertion, vibration, and awkward positions or movements. The longer you expose your body to any of these situations, the more likely you are to develop a painful problem.


One of the most common MSDs is carpal tunnel syndrome. The carpal tunnel is a passageway in the wrist. When the nerve that runs through that tunnel gets pinched, it can cause tingling, numbness, and pain in the hand, wrist and even the arm. It can also reduce the strength and mobility of your hand and could, in the worst cases, lead to permanent nerve damage and even partial paralysis.


Other MSDs primarily affect the tendons, especially at or near the joints. One common problem is tendonitis, an inflammation that results from using the wrist or shoulder too much or in ways that they're not meant to move. If the condition is bad enough, the tendon fibers may even fray or tear. The longer MSDs are ignored, the worse they get. In addition, if you let them go long enough, they may not be able to be "cured." Failing to take early action may force you to live with the pain and with limited use of your hand or arm permanently. So pay attention to how your arm, neck, shoulder, hand, wrist and fingers feel.


Let a supervisor know immediately if you experience:

  • Pain or achiness
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Stiffness
  • Burning
  • Swelling
  • Weakness


Another type of ergonomic problem relates to vibration. Repeated, prolonged exposure to vibration may cause Raynaud's syndrome, or white finger. That means the skin and muscles aren't getting enough oxygen from the blood. It may take months or even years for a worker’s fingers and hands to feel the effects of working with vibrating tools. But once the symptoms get really bad, it can be too late. In the worst cases, the tissue in the fingers can die or you might lose the use of your hand.


So if you work with pneumatic tools, grinders, chain saws or other tools that vibrate, you have to be very alert. If you work with these tools when it's cold or if you smoke, you're particularly at risk.

Here are the symptoms to watch out for:

  • Tingling
  • Numbness
  • Pain
  • Fingers turning white and losing feeling
  • Loss of finger dexterity  

Vibration-related injuries can be permanently crippling if you don't catch them early. To minimize vibration and its negative physical effects:

  • Operate tools at the lowest speed possible without lengthening the time it takes to do the job.
  • Keep tools well-maintained.
  • Hold tools as loosely as safety permits.
  • Wear gloves designed to protect against vibration.
  • Use offset or spring-loaded handles or shock-absorbing exhaust mechanisms to reduce vibration.
  • Use mechanical aids rather than your hands to grasp and hold pieces.
  • Avoid bending your wrists or placing your hands and arms in awkward positions.
  • Keep your body, especially your hands, warm.
  • Try to alternate tasks so you don't spend all day operating a vibrating tool.

Identifying hazards

As mentioned above, the study of ergonomics has identified a number of tasks and positions that are most likely to lead to cumulative trauma disorders and other physical problems. Among the risk factors for cumulative trauma disorders of the arm and hand are:

  • Repetitive activities – making the same motion over and over. The longer you repeat the same movement, the greater the risk.
  • Forceful exertions, particularly with the hands. The combination of repetitive motion and force, such as pushing on a tool over and over, is a particular risk.
  • Staying in the same position, whether sitting or standing, for an extended time.
  • Awkward body postures, such as reaching above your shoulders or behind your back or twisting your wrists to perform tasks.
  • Continued physical contact between hands or arms and a work surface or surface edge.
  • Excessive power tool vibration.
  • Hand tools that either don't fit the job or don't fit the hand.


Poor ergonomics can also injure the back. Among the factors that raise the risks of back injury are:

  • Bending continually from the waist.
  • Lifting from below the knees or above the shoulders.
  • Twisting at the waist, especially while lifting.
  • Lifting or moving objects that are too heavy or awkward.
  • Sitting for long periods of time, especially if you have poor posture.


We'll get a little more specific in a minute about the kinds of movements, positions or tools that you should watch out for. But in general, poor ergonomics means forcing your body into unnatural movements and positions. When you do that, your body uses pain, achiness, numbness, etc., to tell you there's a problem. It's crucial that you be alert to those symptoms, because, if you just keep doing what you're doing, your body will finally send signals which are so strong that you can't ignore them and you may have to live with the results for the rest of your life.


Protection against hazards

In its ergonomic guidelines for meat packers, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration explains that there are four parts to a good ergonomics program:

1) Worksite analysis

2) Hazard prevention and control

3) Medical management

4) Training and education


By including training and education, OSHA is emphasizing that good ergonomics is everyone's responsibility. It's up to the employer to provide you with information and guidance on how to avoid risks, but only you can use that information to do your job in the proper way.


Engineering and work practice controls

When it comes to preventing and controlling hazards, OSHA recommends that employers look first at engineering controls that can help improve the way the job fits the person, rather than forcing the person to fit the job.


One type of engineering control might be to modify the design of a workstation – for instance, moving the work surface to a height that's more comfortable for the individual worker. It's also possible to redesign the work method. You could, for example, put handles on boxes to make them easier to lift. Engineering controls can also mean redesigning tools. One recommendation is to provide tools with a selection of handle sizes so that each individual (of any size, right- or left-handed) can find one that's comfortable to hold and use.


When engineering controls aren't enough, you can try to ease the strain with work practice or administrative controls. That might mean scheduling more rest pauses for someone who works with a vibrating tool, rotating tasks so the worker is not constantly in the same position using the same muscles, or using mechanical equipment for a task rather than doing it by hand.


Safety procedures

Let's talk now about things you can do to improve the ergonomics of your workplace and reduce the chance of injury. The positions you work in and the movements you make are key parts of ergonomics. And, these are things over which you have control.


First, look at how your workstation is organized. Do you have to reach more than 20 inches to get to tools or materials you need? If so, try to rearrange your workstation to bring those things closer.


Bending and twisting are also problems. For most people, a comfortable work surface is at about waist height. A work surface that's more than 6 inches below your waist is probably not in accordance with good ergonomics.


If you can't make these changes yourself, talk to someone. You will need to figure out a way to make your workstation more comfortable. Here are some other things you can do to reduce the risk of injuries caused by poor ergonomics:

  • Keep your elbows down on the work surface instead of leaning on the elbows.
  • Work with your palms down.
  • Work with your wrists straight, not bent.
  • Shift positions every so often; don't sit or stand for too long at a stretch.
  • Perform tasks with two hands rather than one when possible.
  • Grip objects with your whole hand and your fingers – a power grip – in order to distribute the force over a larger area of your hand.
  • Try to avoid applying pressure to a tool with the center of your palm; that spot is much weaker than the parts of the hand padded with more muscle.


Tool use and selection

Tools are another important part of ergonomics. First and foremost, select a tool that fits the job. If a tool is too small or not really designed for your purpose, you're going to be forcing the tool – and yourself – into bad positions. It's also a good idea to use a power tool rather than a hand tool when possible. Another suggestion is to use the lightest available tool for the job.


Other ergonomically desirable things to look for in tools include:

  • Padded handles
  • Textured grips, rather than grips with pre-cut finger-hold grooves
  • Triggers that are operated by more than one finger.
  • Tools that can be supported by two hands or an overhead suspension system.


Saving your back

When it comes to avoiding back problems, the most important thing is to lift properly – let your knees rather than your back do the work. The details of back safety, including proper lifting, are important enough for their own safety meeting. But in general, remember to:

  • Avoid lifting; whenever possible, use material handling systems.
  • Don't try to lift objects that are too heavy for you or whose size and shape are too awkward to allow a good grip.
  • Don't twist while lifting or carrying a load; that's one of the fastest routes to back injury.



This article has outlined some of the most common ergonomic problems, their causes and some actions you can take to reduce the risk of injury. But, as you know, ergonomics seeks ways to make the job fit the person, rather than the other way around. That means it is, by definition, a very individualized approach to designing tools, tasks and work areas.


Each individual body is different in terms of size, shape and capability. Each of us uses different tools and movements and sits, stands and moves in different positions in the course of a day. So any effort to make your workplace really ergonomic – to adapt jobs to people and not force people to fit their jobs – must involve every single person in the workplace.


If you ignore symptoms for too long, you may eventually be unable to perform your current job. You may have to permanently transfer jobs, undergo physical therapy, or even have surgery. In the very worst cases, you may develop such a major and painful disability that you're unable to work.


So pay attention to how your body feels when you're working. Try to identify what causes pain, numbness or other symptoms. Work with your supervisors to make sure you have a workplace that's free of ergonomic hazards.


About the author:

This article provided by, an e-learning division of Business and Legal Reports Inc. and a publisher of quality compliance, training and productivity tools for the workplace. For more information on the company’s range of products and services, visit

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