Overexertion injuries are some of the most costly work-related injuries around the world and produce thousands of injuries a year. However, overexertion injuries can be prevented. In this post, I’m going to dive into industrial ergonomics and share some tips to minimize manual material handling (MMH) exposures that I've used many times. These tips can give you insight if you're considering adding this to your services.
Although this post is aimed at the more industrial environment, the tips that I’m going to share with you are still applicable when conducting office ergonomic assessments. Sometimes employees have to deal with heavy objects in the office, so they’re still at risk of overexertion. However, what I’m going to be talking about are the essential duties. So if the essential duties of that person's tasks are something that requires significant manual material handling, then that's usually going to fall under industrial ergonomics. Nonetheless, this post is very valuable if you're considering adding industrial ergonomics assessments to your portfolio.
I got my start in the ergonomics industry via industrial ergonomics. On a very high level, industrial ergonomics follows the same process as office ergonomic assessments. But I feel that more expertise is required in industrial ergonomics to select the tools and make a thorough approach to ergonomic risk assessment and the cost of error is also a lot higher. For most industry-related ergonomics, you're going to use different tools depending on the risk factor that you're looking for, the outcome that you're intending to do, and job factors. So it’s much more complex.
One of the caveats with industrial ergonomics is the fear that you might be introducing more risk to the system. It's really a hard place to start, and you can waste a lot of valuable time researching ergonomics assessment tools and figuring out how to use them. This is exactly why I'm so thrilled to tell you about the update that I'm making to the Accelerate program. In the new Accelerate program, I provide Ergonomic Consultants with the tools and the systems to help them with marketing and running their consulting business. If you’re interested in learning more about the Accelerate program, scroll down to the bottom of this post. I have something special to share with you!
Manual material handling (MMH) refers to the process of moving an object by manual means. MMH involves performing lifting, lowering, pushing, pulling, carrying tasks. It is most common in industrial settings like warehousing and manufacturing but is present in most industries. Each handling task presents different demands on the employee. Unsafe manual material handling can put workers at risk of injuries from overexertion.
When conducting an ergonomic risk assessment, the first thing you want to do to reduce MMH overexertion is to look at the job design. Assess the appropriate risks related to MMH and apply control measures to remove or mitigate the potential for overexertion.
The best solution to any manual material handling-related problem is to eliminate the need for doing any sort of manual material handling tasks. If unnecessary tasks can be eliminated, then risk can be minimized. This can often be accomplished by providing mechanical lifting aids, such as lift tables, conveyors, hoists, and cranes. The work area can sometimes be modified so that all materials are provided at the work level.
Since engineering out the tasks is not always possible, the best thing to do is to reduce the demands of the job in a way that’s within the workers' capabilities. The first thing we want to look at is if we can decrease the weight of the objects being handled.
A simple example here is to ask the employer to call their suppliers if they can store heavy items in lower quantity/weight containers instead of getting workers to lift heavy and large boxes. I've used this many times as a creative (yet low cost) ergonomic solution. It's a solution that doesn't require a lot of financial resources but does require impeccable communication with the supplier.
One useful solution to incorporate is to prohibit solo handling of heavy or large objects. Using two or more people to lift the loads lowers the risk of injury or exposure. Of course, you want to ensure they're using good body mechanics and team lifting techniques to move the objects, as the ergonomic risk is technically still present.
The next solution is changing the activity. For instance, pushing is generally easier on your back compared to pulling. But pushing and pulling are both better and safer than carrying the load. If it’s necessary for the worker to carry the load, whenever possible, recommend that there's equal weight on each side of that person. I've read a lot of research studies pointing out that if there's equal weight on each side, that person can technically carry more weight because you're not introducing a sheer force on the spine.
The next thing that we can look at to the job design is minimizing the horizontal distances between the start and the end of the lift. You can look at this as a horizontal reach or minimizing the carrying distance. Both are very useful. One useful element is to look at those through the NIOSH Lifting Equation to look for opportunities for improvement in work design.
One simple tactic that I often use when doing industrial ergonomics assessments is to stack materials no higher than shoulder height. You can pull anthropometric data to figure out what the shoulder height is. We don't want to stack things higher than the shoulder. Otherwise, there’s going to be a significant amount of ergonomic risk to the system.
Another tip that I used quite often is to keep heavy objects at knuckle height. The ideal manual material handling zone has been called the “strike zone". It's a baseball term, but it also works because it allows us to handle things without bending our backs too much to lifting items off the floor. When possible, reduce the frequency of lifting and incorporate frequent short breaks. This will give the workers time to relax tired muscles and minimize the risk of injury, especially back injury.
The next solution is to incorporate job rotation into less strenuous jobs. A common misconception about job rotation is that it's a solution to all ergonomic scenarios. However, it's a topic that has a lot of caveats in it. If you're going to be using job rotation in the industrial setup, make sure to make a thorough risk analysis of any job that that person is going to be rotated into.
The last simple solution is to look at the handle design of the objects being lifted. I've assessed jobs that have poor handle design. I noticed that it’s a lot easier for the worker to perform MMH tasks if there are handles or grips that can be held close to their body. If they keep objects close to their center of mass, there's less force on that person's shoulders and other parts of the body.
Those are some of the solutions that I’ve found to be particularly helpful during industrial ergonomic risk assessments. I hope you get some value. I also want to show how this fits into your overall business structure. Knowing how to do a solid office ergonomics assessment, in addition to industrial ergonomics know-how, gives you added security in how you run your business, especially if there's a need in your community.
If you've read up to this point, then I know that you’re really interested in learning more about how to grow your ergonomic consulting business. Well, I have good news for you. I’ll be opening enrollment for the Accelerate program at the end of June 2021. You can sign up for the waitlist here, and join the free Masterclass this March 27! I'll also share with you exclusive updates and useful information.
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