Why Small Business Owners Should Prioritize Ergonomics

It could cut costs by reducing injuries

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Ergonomics is the scientific study of people in their working environment. It's based on the idea that a job should conform to the worker rather than the other way around. Employers (including small business owners) can utilize ergonomics to help prevent workplace injuries and reduce their cost of workers’ compensation insurance.

Workplace Injuries

Many workplace injuries can be classified as musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other government agencies use this term to describe injuries to muscles, nerves, joints, and other soft tissues caused by sudden or repeated motion, force, vibration, or awkward positions. MSDs do not include injuries resulting from slips and falls, auto accidents, or similar causes.

Many MSDs are often caused by activities commonly performed in the workplace. Below are some examples.

  • An analyst who spends their workdays at a computer creating and editing spreadsheets may experience muscle pain in his shoulder and arm.
  • A healthcare worker at a nursing home may strain their back while helping a resident move from a bed to a chair.
  • A ceiling installer may suffer from neck and shoulder pain. Their job requires them to lift heavy drywall over their head and hold it in place, often while standing in an awkward position.
  • A construction worker who spends several hours each day operating a jackhammer could experience numbness and tingling in their hands.

Why Employers Should Consider Ergonomics

There are several reasons why small business employers should consider implementing an ergonomics program. First off, all employers are required by the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act to provide employees with a safe workplace. Ergonomics can help employers comply with this law by making workplaces safer. Secondly, MSDs are a major cause of injuries that lead to lost work time. In 2015, MSDs accounted for 31% of all nonfatal injuries that required time off work. When time is spent away from work, production can suffer. Many MSDs result from overexertion or poor body positions, so the prevention of such injuries through ergonomics can lower workers' compensation costs and time away from work.

The Ergonomics Process

Suppose you are a small business owner and you want to incorporate ergonomics into your workplace. Where should you begin? One logical starting point is OSHA's website. The agency outlines a procedure employers can follow to apply ergonomic principles in their workplace. This ergonomics process from OSHA includes the following steps.

  1. Get support from management. An ergonomics program won't succeed without the blessing of top management. Managers should define clear goals and objectives for the program.
  2. Involve employees. Workers know more about their jobs than anyone else. They can help identify existing hazards and suggest ways to mitigate them. Once changes have been implemented, workers can help evaluate their success.
  3. Train workers. Workers need training so they understand the basic principles of ergonomics and how it can benefit them. They also need to know how to use tools and equipment properly and how to recognize the signs of a MSD.
  4. Identify problems. Before implementing any changes, employers should determine what hazards need to be mitigated. This can be accomplished by reviewing injury reports, workers’ compensation records, observing workplace conditions, and interviewing workers.
  5. Implement solutions. Employers have many possible solutions for reducing, controlling, or eliminating workplace hazards that can cause MSDs. (More on this below.)
  6. Evaluate progress. Once they have implemented their ergonomics program, employers need to evaluate it to gauge its effectiveness. Employers can assess the changes they have made by utilizing the same sources of information they used in step four above.

While OSHA's ergonomic process is intended for all employers, the agency does offer industry-specific guidelines for setting up an ergonomics program. For instance, it provides guidelines for meatpacking plants, nursing homes, and shipyards.

Employers should encourage workers to report MSDs early. Early reporting will enable workers to be treated promptly and prevent their condition from progressing.

Ergonomic Solutions for Preventing Injuries

The goal of ergonomics is to reduce workplace hazards that can cause MSDs. Most ergonomic solutions reduce hazards by modifying the work itself or the way the work is performed. OSHA describes the three categories of ergonomics solutions outlined below. These are listed in descending order of effectiveness.

Engineering Controls

This category (which OSHA considers the most effective) consists of physical changes to the workplace that make tasks less demanding on the human body. A few examples may include:

  • A hand truck or platform truck for carrying heavy loads
  • A conveyor belt that brings items to workers so they don't have to carry them
  • An adjustable workstation or moveable shelves
  • Positioning supplies at waist level so employees don't have to bend over or reach overhead

Administrative and Work Practice Controls

This group of controls consists of systems and procedures that are designed to prevent workplace injuries. Examples may include:

  • Rest breaks
  • Rotating jobs to minimize repetitive motions and awkward positions
  • A policy requiring workers to attend training sessions on proper lifting techniques and then to practice those techniques

Personal Protective Equipment

The term personal protective equipment (PPE) means clothing or equipment worn by workers to protect them from heat, cold, vibration, chemicals, and other hazards that can cause injuries. Some types of PPE can improve ergonomics. These may include knee pads and thermal gloves.

The Bottom Line

An ergonomics program can help small business owners reduce on-the-job injuries that lead to lost work time and disability costs. To succeed, the program needs clear goals as well as buy-in from managers and workers.