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Considering ergonomics could make all the difference

Fitting the work environment to the worker is critical to safety success

January 16, 2020
Don Patten

When selecting hearing protection, consider multiple options to accommodate different ear sizes. (Denis/Adobe Stock)

As an OHS professional, do you think of yourself as someone who has influence over the design of work?

Personally, if a company asked me to design and set up a process to make widgets, I wouldn’t have the foggiest idea on how to do that — I have a hard enough time figuring out how to bake brownies!

Health and safety are about understanding risks to employees in constantly changing environments where we are trying to predict, identify and eliminate risk and — ultimately — influence behaviour.

OHS professionals identify conditions that may harm employees and then work to make the appropriate and necessary changes. Once in place, those changes are expected to keep the employees safe. Sounds simple enough!

But then why do some people remove guards on machines or refuse to wear hearing protection and safety glasses? Considering the consequences, those should be no-brainers.

One reason for non-compliant behaviour could be that those glasses or hearing protection are uncomfortable, don’t fit right or interfere with visual tasks making it more difficult to work.

When you select hearing protection, are there multiple options to accommodate different ear sizes?

While the answer is probably yes, by providing those options, you are fitting the work environment to the worker — the essence of ergonomics.

Defining ergonomics

The International Ergonomics Association (IEA) defines ergonomics as “the scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of interactions among humans and other elements of a system.”

The machine/process that is causing that noise is part of the “system” we are interacting with, leading to our personal protective equipment (PPE) selection.

The IEA further states that “ergonomists contribute to the design and evaluation of tasks, jobs, products, environments and systems in order to make them compatible with the needs, abilities and limitations of people.”

As humans, we are unable to endure loud noises for extended periods of time, a limitation that we need to comply with.

We have always thought of ergonomics as a way to prevent musculoskeletal disorders (MSD), but in this case it is being used to ensure proper fit and reduce exposure to ensure a greater chance of compliance.

This is where OHS professionals can use ergonomics to their advantage. The question we need to ask ourselves is — are the safety programs that we are putting in place compatible with the needs, abilities and limitations of people?

Consider the benefits

Consider this example: You put a guard in place to prevent an entanglement. You’ve now complied, but does this result in the employee leaning further to reach the part and in doing so, create back discomfort? Is this a potential reason why guards get removed?

Perhaps a redesign would ensure compliance and improve the posture.

I’m not saying it is always possible to find that perfect balance to manage all risk, but understanding how the change may affect the employee’s interaction with the now-guarded machine may provide some insight into potential changes or non-compliant behaviours.

A challenge we will always be faced with as safety professionals is that people are different. We each have different abilities and are different shapes and sizes.

However, we do have some things in common, physically and cognitively. Understanding these commonalities and incorporating them into work will have immeasurable impact on the success of our safety programs.

We understand through employee feedback that fit is important, especially with PPE. The next step is to expand this thinking to how the work is being done and how we can modify it to suit our needs, abilities and limitations — perhaps influencing safer behaviour and better decision making.

To learn more about ergonomics there are plenty of resources available.

Launched in 2018, the MSD Prevention Guideline for Ontario is particularly valuable. It includes amazing resources to help you identify MSD hazards and understand risk.

Using these resources to assess jobs where changes are being made (not just ergonomics changes but other safety changes, as well) could be used either proactively to prevent MSDs or prevent the unintended introduction of MSD hazards.

As a safety professional, having a basic understanding of ergonomics will assist you in asking critical questions to help influence how work is designed, while ensuring workers are put into positions where they can succeed and comply.

Don Patten is an ergonomics specialist with WSPS in Mississauga, Ont.