Workplace Ergonomics – Trends for 2022 and Beyond
Since the latter half of the 20th Century, there has been far more concern about the many hazards that can threaten employees’ health whilst at work. Once governments became more aware of the statistics regarding conditions such as asbestosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, dermatitis, and noise-induced hearing loss, they were obliged to address health and safety issues at work. However, the primary focus of industrial hygiene is most often on the physical, chemical, and biological hazards to which staff are exposed. Consequently, workplace ergonomics is an aspect of health and safety that is frequently overlooked.
This lesser-known aspect of occupational hygiene relates to the relationship between workplace design and the incidence of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) among employees. MSDs are defined as conditions affecting muscles, tendons, ligaments, blood vessels, and nerves, increasing the risk of injury. The American Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reported that, in 2018, 30% of injuries and illnesses among workers in the manufacturing sector were the result of MSDs. In practice, these figures highlight the need for employers to pay more attention to workplace ergonomics.
The ergonomic issues affecting employees are of two main types. Probably the most widely recognised of these are physical issues that directly affect employees’ posture, leading to musculoskeletal disorders. A fundamental matter such as the height of a standing workstation can have long-term consequences. Providing adjustable workstations for use by operators of varying height can eliminate backache and fatigue that lead to poor performance, improving morale and increasing productivity. In the case of office workers, desk height and chair design play a similar role. However, cognitive factors can be equally important when assessing workplace ergonomics.
While the physical issues described cause soft tissue stress, employees with a high cognitive workload risk mental stress. The problem frequently stems from inadequate instruction. When given a new task, many factory operatives are left to work from detailed instructions. Consequently, they must memorise each step of the procedure they read accurately and retain it for long enough to implement the task without error. At best, this laborious process slows production. At worst, it can affect the operator’s mental health.
To tackle this aspect of workplace ergonomics, many companies are now embracing digital technology. They are replacing those stress-producing written instructions with animated audiovisual material through the medium of virtual and augmented reality. Workers can view the visuals through a headset or as a projection. In each case, they still have an unobstructed view of the task. The more sophisticated systems even have failsafe routines that prevent operators from proceeding with a task should they fail to implement an instruction correctly.
Another factor that frequently leads to cognitive stress among employees is poor communication. In the future, much of the focus of workplace ergonomics will be on ways to standardise training, improve access to information and promote teamwork. Lean manufacturing practices and leveraging the cloud to unify data storage will feature prominently among future trends to address this issue.
In practice, the Occupational Health and Safety Act does not mandate the need to conduct a workplace ergonomics assessment. However, its value in preventing physical and mental illness and injury and maximising productivity is indisputable. Call IOH Solutions to learn how your company could benefit.