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The goal of this blog is to provide useful information on every aspect of workplace health - from wellness and injury prevention through to rehabilitation and recovery at work.

Ergonomics in the Workplace – Why it Matters

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Australia spends over $60 billion annually on workplace injury and illness, according to Safe Work Australia. Over a third of the total cases (and economic costs) are associated with body stressing or manual handling – issues that can be significantly ameliorated through effective injury prevention programs. 

The Economic Cost of Workplace Injuries 

We often see billion-dollar numbers in the media, but rarely consider the magnitude of what’s being read. For example, Australia’s defense spending was $32.4 billion in 2016. At $61.8 billion, workplace injuries and illness costs are nearly double the amount spent on our country’s defense. Those are some serious figures - particularly when preventative solutions are available for a fraction of the cost.

The Human Cost of Workplace Injuries 

While the economic cost of injury and illness is the primary driver for implementing prevention programs, it’s also important to consider the human cost. Lost-time injuries can cause pain, suffering, stress and anxiety - and each of these consequences can actually exacerbate the original injury, delaying the recovery process. Invariably, other employees are also affected by changes in the environment and their workload. 

A National Priority 

Safe Work Australia identified musculoskeletal disorders as a priority in its report “Australian Strategy 2012 to 2022.” It should come as no surprise - the statistics are compelling: 

- Musculoskeletal disorders account for 60% of serious injury claims. 
- Median lost-time due to musculoskeletal injuries increased 35% between 2000 and 2013. 
- Average claim costs rose by 59% between 2000 and 2013. 

In short, the problem is getting worse, not better. 

The Crucial Role of Ergonomics 

Most people think of workplace injuries as resulting from a specific incident. Indeed, people tend to report an injury at the point when they first begin to experience significant pain. However, in many cases, tissue damage accumulates over time. 

Poor ergonomics leads to muscular fatigue, postural changes, discomfort, and then, eventually, to musculoskeletal injury and significant pain. Just as smoking a packet of cigarettes each day may not cause immediate health problems, performing work tasks in sub-optimal ways is unlikely to cause an injury instantly. It is the cumulative effect of our habits over time that is so destructive. 

Ergonomic Injury Risk Factors 

The first step to better workplace health is to understand what places an individual at risk. 

Job/environmental risk factors include: 

- Highly repetitive tasks.
- Static or repetitive awkward postures. 
- Forceful exertions, e.g., heavy lifting, pushing, pulling, etc. 
- Poor workstation design / equipment. 
- Cold temperatures. 
- Vibration. 

Jobs with multiple ergonomic risk factors are associated with a higher incidence of musculoskeletal disorders. 

Personal risk factors include:

- Poor work habits 
At an individual level, the primary risk factor is the adoption of poor work habits. For example, maintaining poor posture, using suboptimal lifting/pushing/pulling techniques or failing to take (short) breaks / rotate tasks. 

- Lifestyle/health 
Lifestyle factors, such as lower physical fitness, smoking, obesity and poor sleep may also play a role; these are independent risk factors for occupational injuries. Psychological health, too, can influence posture and movement patterns, potentially exacerbating the risk of musculoskeletal injuries. Best practice injury prevention programs should always consider and address psychosocial factors.

Prevention is the Key

The old adage rings true in relation to workplace injuries – prevention is better than cure. Even when there is no lost time, research suggests that simply the presence of musculoskeletal symptoms may result in lowered productivity. 

We know that there are clearly defined injury risk factors, so it’s obviously wise to invest in offsetting these. Smart companies build multifaceted injury prevention programs – they reduce job risk factors through task analyses and careful process re-engineering; and they ameliorate personal risk factors through individualised ergonomic assessments, equipment tailoring, customised training / education, and health (including psychological health) promotion programs. 

By addressing the ergonomic risk factors, in a manner tailored to each worker, a business can reduce the incidence of injuries and illness in its workforce. This not only slices direct costs, but leaves the enterprise with healthier, happier, and more productive employees.

-- Laith Cunneen is Chief Operations Officer at Actevate Pty Ltd

Resources & References

Hagberg M, Wigaeus Tornqvist E, Toomingas A. Selfreported reduced productivity due to musculoskeletal symptoms: associations with workplace and individual factors among white-collar computer users. J Occup Rehabil 2002;12:151 –162. 

Lewis RJ, Krawiec M, Confer E, et al. Musculoskeletal disorder compensation costs and injuries before and after an office ergonomics program. Int J Ind Ergonomics 2002; 29:95–99 

Viikari-Juntura E, Martikainen R, Luukkonen R, et al. Longitudinal study on work related and individual risk factors affecting radiating neck pain. Occup Environ Med 2001;58:345 –352 

Wahlstrom, J. (2005). Ergonomics, musculoskeletal disorders and computer work. Occup Med (2005) 55 (3): 168-176. 

Westgaard RH, Winkel J. Ergonomic intervention research for improved musculoskeletal health: a critical review. Int J Ind Ergonomics 1997;20:463–500.

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