From Bottom To Top
By Jason Contant
Brian Lane remembers being taken aback after entering a bakery in British Columbia.
Brian Lane remembers being taken aback after entering a bakery in British Columbia.
The national sales manager for Henderson Specialty & Custom Matting in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia was not there to sell mats. But the bakery’s attempt to provide support to a worker required to stand for much of the day was a “sale” he felt compelled to make. She stood on “a six-inch-square piece of plywood because her back aches and she’s getting varicose veins,” he recalls.
The worker’s job was to take cookies off a conveyor belt, turn and place them in a box — a task repeated many, many times a day. As the sole employee on the line, Lane reports that the conveyor speed would be set slower as the day wore on to match her increasing fatigue.
“So she’s been standing on this piece of plywood for years,” Lane says, all in a fruitless bid to help minimize the possibly injurious effects of static standing.
Lane just happened to have a small black bubble mat with him, a product designed to help stimulate ankle movement and blood flow. “I said, ‘Here take this, try it for a couple of days.’ I didn’t even tell her boss.”
The mat did the trick. Lane reports the company was “able to speed the line up over 20 per cent because at the end of the day, she felt that much better. Long story short, he ordered 40 of [the mats].”
STAND AND DELIVER
The story clearly illustrates direct benefits to worker productivity and health that an appropriate standing surface can provide. The anti-fatigue mat — meant to reduce foot weariness when workers must stand for long periods — was a good choice for the bakery since it suited the environment.
These mats can be made of various materials, including rubber, vinyl and wood, says information from the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety in Hamilton, Ontario. But this option must be considered in conjunction with changes to working/standing position (a worker should have some choice about his or her working position and have an opportunity to change positions frequently), footwear (shoes should offer adequate arch and heel support and cushioning), and flooring.
“Walking on a hard floor is similar to the impact of a hammer pounding the heel at every step. Wood, cork, carpeting or rubber — anything that provides some elasticity — is gentler on workers’ feet,” the CCOHS advises.
Environmental conditions are one of the clearest factors to consider when selecting appropriate matting. In general, for wet environments, a mat featuring holes or slots for drainage is ideal, while a solid-top mat (no holes) is best for dry environments, says Marvin Vader, president of Mul-T-Mat & Supply Co. in Concord, Ontario.
Of course, there are many other options: matting for workplaces in which electrical work or welding applications are carried out; walk-way matting that is impervious to temperature changes; “grit” mats that offer slip resistance in wet, slippery environments with, for example, industrial oils and lubricants; modular matting that fits around equipment; and matting that is resistant to chemicals and oil/grease.
In workplaces where oil and grease are commonplace, such as restaurant kitchens, the need for an appropriate mat is obvious. Vader recommends a nitrile rubber mat, explaining that nitrile can be injected into rubber to reduce its natural decomposition from exposure to these two substances. Urethane has its own properties and natural defences so it will not be affected by oil or grease, he says.
While mats can be found in workplaces ranging from grocery stores to manufacturing plants and hospitals, food service areas and entry-ways are two applications that are “dead locks,” suggests Tim Craik, general manager of GO Resilient Canada in Burlington, Ontario.
Craik notes that, apart from the working environment, mat choice is also influenced by personal preference. “It’s like buying cars. You either love the look or you don’t like the look right out of the gate, and that’s what has the staying power.”
Rich Bing, marketing manager of facility services with Mason, Ohio-based Cintas Corporation, is of the mind that the mat — whether made from carpet material or rubber — should be in line with the particular contaminant present in the workplace. “A heavy grease application, like inside a kitchen, will be better served by a rubber mat that allows a person to stand above the grease, helping to reduce the likelihood of a slip and fall,” Bing says. “Inside an entry-way could be best served by a carpeted mat to help capture the fine dirt and dust that is being tracked in.”
But it’s not just about material; size also comes into play. The size of the mat should reflect the amount of contaminants it is expected to collect, with larger mats also offering additional benefit in high-traffic areas, he says.
Bing compares a mat to a trash can. “What happens if you do not empty the trash can? It will overflow,” he says. “Similar to a trash can, once a mat is full, it can act like an ink pad where people pick up contaminants off the mat and spread them to other parts of the building.”
Lane agrees. “People bring in black mats for a restaurant and oil and grease splatters on them and all of a sudden they can’t understand why, through the entire restaurant, there’s a black pathway,” he says.
Besides selecting a mat to match the working environment, another major consideration is softness. Some industry experts say that while softer mats are perceived to be better and more comfortable for users, perception is not necessarily reality. In fact, if the matting used is too soft, it is unlikely to provide enough stability because a worker’s heels will keep sinking into the material.
“All you want to do is diminish the migration or shock up to the body… like a dampening,” advises Craik. To that, Garth Schafer, owner of Ergomaster Products in Vernon, British Columbia, adds the general rule for those standing on mats is “the further off the surface you get them, the better.”
Schafer reports the industry-accepted standard is one inch thickness for insulation. Some retail outlets sell mats with a quarter-inch thickness, he says, commenting that he regards these as “basically useless. They might as well be putting cardboard down.”
The compressibility of the surface covered by the mat will also dictate choice, with concrete and steel being two of the most unyielding and unforgiving of surfaces. “If it is concrete, who is going to win the fight?” asks Craik. “The concrete always wins because as your body hits it, the shock doesn’t go into the concrete, it comes right back up through your feet, up your legs, and up into your hips and back,” he goes on to say.
WEAR, THEN TEAR
Even if matting provides sufficient insulation, it, of course, remains susceptible to wear. While good quality materials will often provide a minimum of one year of service life, Vader says, assuming this will always be the case is hardly a good bet.
“I’ve seen mats that should last two years in a machine shop last for three months,” says Schafer, using the example of a wood products facility that fails to regularly clean off the wood chips left behind. A professional cleaning service, Bing adds, can be employed to help maximize a mat’s life for capturing contaminants.
Service life often depends on a number of factors, suggests Vader, such as the harshness of the work environment, the number of people using the product and how long it is being used. Consider that a supermarket cashier may stand on a mat for 10 hours before the next worker comes along.
“You may have a person that is 100 pounds, the next shift comes in and that person is 225 pounds. How do you measure the wear or how long the mat is going to last under conditions like that? Very difficult,” Vader contends.
That’s where variable compression comes into play. Us- ing a similar example of a workstation — this time, the first person weighs 110
pounds and the second 280 pounds — Schafer says there are engineered plastic matting products available to absorb shock through variable compression.
Featuring a domed surface, “what will happen is as they are loaded, they will get stiffer and stiffer and it will give people comfort in the lighter weight ranges and still provide proper support for heavier people,” Shafer explains.
Absent that support, “the soft cushy foam workspace that the 110-pound person likes is absolutely destructive and detrimental to the 280-pound person,” he adds.
Mat softness — or hardness, for that matter — will have some impact and a possible adverse effect on health, suggests Marnie Downey, president of ERGO Inc. in Barrie, Ontario.
Anti-fatigue mats, Downey points out, are designed to reduce the effects of static standing — which can include blood pooling, fatigue in the lower limbs and sometimes even discomfort in the lower back — by stimulating blood flow. Well-designed anti-fatigue mats encourage a gentle swaying motion of the body by way of “very minute movements in the [leg] muscle for stability, which stimulates blood flow,” she explains.
“The real challenge arises when people start using it for a lot of dynamic work because if the matting is too soft, they can start twisting their knees or there’s a little bit more instability,” she adds.
Ergonomically, there are several techniques to help keep musculoskeletal injuries at bay, Downey suggests. These include putting a footrest on the workstation so a person can alternate putting one foot up at a time; taking mini stretch breaks; providing shoes with good arch support, cushioning and soles; and designing work tasks to ensure that some movement is involved.
With regard to workspace design, Downey recommends that employers “try to get away from that traditional design where you are putting one person at this machine and one person at this machine. We tend to think it is better to have [somebody]… doing the same thing over and over again, but there is the risk of injury due to that static work.”
Other times, it comes down to the footwear. “If you have a good soled shoe with good support… my belief is that is probably more beneficial than putting matting everywhere,” says Downey. “I would rather see someone put a good insole inside their shoe with some good shoe support.”
Regardless of the quality of shoes and floor coverings, however, the CCOHS cautions that “standing itself can cause tiredness after an entire working day.”
The combination of hard, uncomfortable floor surfaces, static standing, long working hours, inappropriate footwear and environmental conditions must all factor into the purchasing equation.
Jason Contant is editor of CANADIAN OCCUPATIONAL HEALTH & SAFETY NEWS.
“Walking on a hard floor is similar to the impact of a hammer pounding the heel at every step…”
Different tasks demand different responses. When determining what will best suit workplace needs, information from Alberta Employment and Immigration suggests considering the following:
• Grip: Matting with anti-slip properties will be important in oily or wet environments.
• Operation of equipment: Equipment such as carts and dollies may be difficult to push on some types of matting. Do not replace the problem of fatigue from standing with another, possible muscle injury from straining to push wheeled devices.
• Chemical resistance: Check matting specifications to ensure it will not be damaged by any chemicals used on the job.
• Resistance to physical damage: Matting selection must take into account the source of physical damage, such as solder or welding splatter, cuts or punctures, cold and wear in high-traffic areas.
• Ease of cleaning: Some matting is more easily cleaned than others, something that may be important in, for example, food-processing industries.
• Aesthetics: Matting design, colour, pattern and shape will need to suit areas in public view.
DOWN WITH FATIGUE
For those whose working positions include a mix of walking and standing, recent research out of Ontario suggests that outsoles that fit over shoes may, in essence, create “portable” anti-fatigue matting.
Researchers looked at whether or not using the product — compared with wearing standard work shoes — could reduce perceived fatigue, discomfort and pain. Workers reported less foot fatigue and lower body/back discomfort, energy was up during the middle of the workday, and perceived pain in the feet, knees, hips and back was down.
Commenting on reported findings, Jennifer McGillis, an ergonomic specialist at ERGO Inc. in Barrie, Ontario, says a follow-up to the study revealed some concerns: the looped outsole can trap debris, possibly creating an uneven surface; the product’s lifespan of two months to a year may present an “unrealistic” cost to the employer; the increased weight of the shoe prompted some reports of lower limb issues; and outsole fit must be good to guard against the possibility of slips, trips and falls.
Another possible downside, says ERGO Inc. president Marnie Downey, is the fact that an outsole becomes just one more piece of gear to put on. “The way I look at it is a lot like [personal protective equipment],” Downey says. It should be used as a last resort, “because you should always try to get rid of the problem at the root or source.”