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Benefits of Workplace Ergonomic Assessments

May 26, 2021
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Ergonomic assessments are used in workplaces as a measure of risk relating to musculoskeletal injury development. Musculoskeletal injuries are estimated to cost the Canadian economy upwards of $22 billion each year (1). In developed economies such as Canada’s, nontraumatic musculoskeletal injuries incur direct and indirect economic costs of approximately $500 million per 1 million workers (2). To reduce this economic burden, ergonomic assessments can be one of the tools individuals and businesses can use to do so.

Currently, with the ever changing restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, performing office work from home is becoming more prominent and normalized. Many workers may not have a designated office space that is setup similarly to that of their workstation in the company office. With this comes new challenges with regards to ergonomic hazard exposure and worker safety. Although new challenges arise, the responsibilities are unchanged; the responsibilities outlined in the Ontario Occupational Health & Safety Act still apply whether or not the worker is working from home or in the company’s offices. Therefore under clause 25(2)(h) of the Occupational Health and Safety Act, it is the employer’s responsibility to take every precaution reasonable in the circumstance to ensure the safety and health of their worker (3) . In these current situations, legally it is beneficial for the employer to have ergonomic hazard risk assessments of their employee’s workspace when working from home to ensure their safety and health is not compromised.

The goals of an ergonomic assessment are to identify the physical and psychosocial risk factors of the workstation and associated task, quantify the risk, and make the necessary adjustments to the workstation or task to minimize this risk. When thinking about workplace ergonomics, initially we think about three things. First, we think about lower back pain, which is then followed by sitting for long periods of time, then finally office chairs. In this case, lower back pain occurs as a result of exposures to ergonomic hazards; these include being seated in a static posture for a long period of time and the type of office chair being used. Although these are the risk factors, they can also be part of the solution. Assessing the current workspace furniture and tasks can help control the exposures to ergonomic hazards resulting in benefits for the user and the business.

To protect workers from ergonomic hazards, the magnitude of exposure must be identified, assessed, and then controlled. To do so, professionals in the field of occupational health and safety follow CSA Z412-17 Office Ergonomics – An application standard for workplace ergonomics. If done by an objective and competent individual, the benefits of an ergonomic assessment can be recognized at an organization level and at the individual worker level.

For the benefits an organization will see, studies have found that after ergonomic assessments and training are performed for workers on a whole the organizations observed (4–6):

  • Increased output per worker
  • Reduction in errors
  • Reduced accidents, injuries, and illnesses resulting in lost time
  • Reduced turnover and absenteeism
    • With this, there is a reduction in time spent training new employees
  • Reduced worker compensation costs

For the benefits the individual worker will see, studies have found that after ergonomic assessments or ergonomic hazard awareness training workers experienced (7–17):

  • Reductions in pain incidence or severity in multiple regions of the body
    • Lower back
    • Shoulder
    • Neck
  • Significant increase in overall ergonomic knowledge which led to lower rates of work-related musculoskeletal injuries

Summary & Keywords

  • Ergonomics
    • Factors in the environment that can cause damage to the musculoskeletal system.
  • Objectives of Ergonomic Assessments
    • Identify risk factors
    • Quantify the risk
    • Control the risk
  • Organization benefits
    • Increased output per worker
    • Reduction in errors
    • Reduced accidents, injuries, and illnesses resulting in lost time
    • Reduced turnover and absenteeism
      • With this, there is a reduction in time spent training new employees
    • Reduced worker compensation costs
  • Individual worker benefits
    • Reductions in pain incidence or severity in multiple regions of the body
      • Lower back
      • Shoulder
      • Neck
    • Significant increase in overall ergonomic knowledge which led to lower rates of work-related musculoskeletal injuries
  • Occupational Health & Safety Act
    • Legislation passed in 1978 that gives everyone in the system responsibility for health and safety.
    • Sets requirements for Joint Health and Safety Committees in organizations dependent on employee populations.
    • Clause 25(2)(h) states the employer shall “take every precaution reasonable in the circumstance for the protection of a worker.”

Questions

  • Will I see the benefits of ergonomic assessments right away?
    • Yes and no. If an ergonomic assessment is done as a proactive measure before musculoskeletal disorders are present, the benefits may never be realized because worker injury has been avoided. If an ergonomic assessment is done as a result of a worker having developed a musculoskeletal disorder, the benefits at the individual level may be seen quickly as the pain they experience may be reduced dramatically. At the organization level, the benefits will be seen quickly as the pattern of productivity positively changes and the chance of the worker missing time due to injury is significantly reduced.
  • As an employer, why am I responsible for what the worker does at home?
    • Technically, if company policy provides the worker with the opportunity to work from home, their home is now a part of their workplace. Under clause 25(2)(h) in the Occupational Health and Safety Act, the employer is responsible to ensure the worker’s place of work is safe.
  • How do I know if a workstation requires an ergonomics assessment
    • All workstations should have an ergonomics assessment done to assess the risk. It is possible that the assessment concludes the current setup and task requirements pose little to no risk of musculoskeletal disorder development in the user. This information is still very valuable as it shows the company has been done their due diligence to ensure the worker is safe.

References

1. Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Government of Canada. IMHA Strategic Plan 2014-2018 – CIHR [Online]. 2019. https://cihr-irsc.gc.ca/e/48830.html [16 Feb. 2021].
2. Lambeek LC, van Tulder MW, Swinkels ICS, Koppes LLJ, Anema JR, van Mechelen W. The Trend in Total Cost of Back Pain in the Netherlands in the Period 2002 to 2007: Spine 36: 1050–1058, 2011. doi: 10.1097/BRS.0b013e3181e70488.
3. Government of Ontario. Occupational Health and Safety Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. O. 1 [Online]. https://www.ontario.ca/laws/statute/90o01: 2014. https://www.ontario.ca/laws/view.
4. Hendrick HW. Determining the cost–benefits of ergonomics projects and factors that lead to their success. Applied Ergonomics 34: 419–427, 2003. doi: 10.1016/S0003-6870(03)00062-0.
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