How to Address Ergonomic Challenges on the Plant Floor

Published by
November 14, 2016

13logoAn April 2016 GAO industrial safety/health report centering on the meat/poultry industry revealed a marked decline of reported injuries/illness rates from the year 2004 through 2013. The rates dropped from 9.8 cases per 100 full-time workers in 2004 to 5.7 in 2013.

However, the report highlighted that meatpacking workers continue to suffer from higher than average rates involving work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) when compared to other manufacturing sectors due in part to the unique working environments and conditions (i.e. high rote work) inherent within industry.

Briefly, MSDs are related and/or aggravated by work that can affect the upper limb extremities, the lower back area, and the lower limbs. MSDs are defined by impairments of bodily structures such as muscles, joints, tendons, ligaments, spine, nerves, bones and the localized blood circulation system that’s caused/aggravated primarily by work itself, including the working (excessive cold/noise exposures) environment.

Unwavering management commitment is a precondition in order to identify, correct, eliminate/reduce MSDs. This technical article will outline four basic elements (highlighted below) to successfully implement an effective ergonomics program regarding the multiple ergonomic hazards existing within the meat/poultry industry.

  • Worksite analysis
  • Hazard prevention and control
  • Medical management
  • Training and education

Worksite Analysis

A worksite analysis identifies existing hazards/conditions, operations that create hazards, and areas where hazards may develop. This includes tracking of injury/illness records to identify patterns of traumas/strains that may indicate the development of MSDs. The objective of a worksite analysis is to recognize, identify and correct such hazards.

  1. Review pertinent injury/illnesses, records/trends:
  • Analyze medical, safety, insurance records, past OSHA-300 logs and information compiled for evidence of MSDs.
  • Identify/analyze trends relating to particular departments, job titles, operations and workstations.
  1. A worksite analysis is a method that identifies work positions needing a quantitative analysis of ergonomic hazards such as:
  • An ergonomic checklist that includes components such as posture, force, repetition, vibration, and various upper extremity factors.
  • Working positions that put workers at risk for developing MSDs.
  • Verifying low-risk factors for light duty/restricted activity positions.
  • Determine if risk factors involving a work position have been reduced/eliminated.
  • Apply to all planned, new, and modified facilities, processes, materials, and equipment to ensure that workplace changes contribute to reducing/eliminating ergonomic hazards.
  1. The analysis of ergonomics hazards should be performed/documented by a qualified person while allowing employees to contribute during the process.
  2. Surveys should be conducted at least annually and whenever operations change in order to identify new or previously overlooked risk factors/deficiencies, including failures in work practices or engineering controls while measuring the effects of those changes.

Hazard Prevention and Control

Once ergonomic hazards are identified, the second step is to design measures to prevent/control those hazards.

Ergonomic hazards are prevented/lessened by effective designs of the workstation, tools, and job. To be effective, an employer’s program should use engineering, work practice controls, personal protective equipment (PPE) and administrative controls to correct/control the hazards.

  1. Engineering controls – Engineering techniques are the ideal method of control. The focus of the ergonomics program is to make “the job fit the person, not have the person fit the job.” Designing/modifying workstations, work methods, and tools to eliminate excessive exertion and awkward postures while diminishing repetitive motion can accomplish this.
  2. Workstation designs – Workstations should be adjustable and designed/selected to fit a specific task so they are comfortable for workers. The workspace should be extensive enough to allow for a full range of movements, especially when knives, saws, and dissimilar tools are used.
  3. Design of work methods – Work methods should be designed to reduce static, extreme/ awkward postures, repetitive motion, and excessive force. Work method designs addresses the content of tasks performed by workers. It requires analysis of the production system to design/modify tasks that eliminates stressors.
  4. Tool/handle design – Ergonomically designed tools and handles reduces the risk of MSDs

For any tool, a variety of sizes should be available to achieve a proper fit and reduce ergonomic risks. The appropriate tool should be used to do a specific job. Tools/handles should be selected to eliminate/minimize the following stressors:

  • Chronic muscle contraction or steady force.
  • Extreme or awkward finger/hand/arm positions.
  • Repetitive forceful motions.
  • Tool vibrations.
  • Excessive gripping, pinching, pressing with the hands/fingers.
  1. Work practice controls – An effective program for hazard prevention/controls includes procedures for safe/proper work that’s understood and followed by managers, supervisors, and workers. Key elements include proper work techniques, employee conditioning, regular monitoring, feedback, maintenance, and adjustments/modifications.
  2. Proper work techniques includes training and practice time for employees:
  • Proper cutting techniques, including methods that improve posture and reduce stress/strain on extremities.
  • Sharpening/steeling of knives.
  • Correct lifting techniques.
  • Proper use/maintenance of pneumatic and other power tools.
  • Correct use of ergonomically designed workstations/fixtures.
  1. New employee period – Jobs in the meat industry usually require break-in periods. Ideally, new employees are gradually integrated into a full workload. Employees should be assigned to an experienced trainer for job training/evaluation during the break-in time.
  2. Monitoring – Regular monitoring will ensure employees continue to perform proper work practices. Monitoring includes reviews of the techniques in use, their effectiveness; including the procedures in use are those specified.
  3. Adjustments/modifications – Modify work practice controls when the dynamics of the workplace change. Such adjustments include changes in the following:
  • Line speeds.
  • Staffing at position.
  • Weight or temperature of the product handled.
  1. PPE must be chosen with ergonomics in mind. PPE should be provided in a variety of sizes while accommodating the physical requirements of workers and the job while not contributing to extreme postures or excessive forces.
  2. Proper fit – For example, gloves that are too thick or fit improperly can reduce blood circulation and sensory feedback while contributing to slippage that requires excessive grip strength.
  3. Protection (clothing) against cold temperatures is necessary to minimize stress on joints.
  4. Braces/splints/back-belts and other similar devices are not PPE.
  5. Other types of PPE (hearing protection) may be selected that won’t increase ergonomic stressors.
  6. Administrative controls – An effective program includes administrative controls that reduces the duration, frequency and severity of exposures to ergonomic stressors, such as:
  • Reducing the number of repetitions per employee by decreasing production rates and overtime.
  • Providing rest pauses to relieve fatigued muscle tendon groups. The length of time depends on the task’s overall effort/cycle time.
  • Increasing the number of employees assigned to alleviate severe conditions.

Using job rotations used with caution and as a preventive measure, not as a response to symptoms. Job rotations are intended to alleviate physical fatigue/stress of a particular set of muscles-tendons by rotating employees to other jobs that use different muscle-tendon groups.

Medical Management

Implementation of a medical management system is the third element of an employer’s ergonomics program. Medical management helps to eliminate/reduce the risk of development of MSD signs/symptoms through early identification and treatment while precluding future problems through development of information sources.

An occupational physician/nurse with training in the prevention/treatment of MSDs should ideally supervise the program. Each work-shift should have access to health care providers to facilitate treatments, surveillance activities and record information. The medical management program should address the following:

  • Injury/illness recordkeeping.
  • Early recognition/reporting.
  • Systematic evaluation/referral.
  • Conservative treatment and return to work.
  • Systematic monitoring.

Training and Education

The fourth element is training/education. The purpose of training/education is to ensure that employees are informed about the ergonomic hazards to which they may be exposed to while being able to participate for their own protection.

The program should be designed/implemented by qualified persons while presented in a language and level of understanding that’s suitable for the individuals being trained. Additionally, an overview of the potential risk of illnesses/injuries, their causes and early symptoms, including the means of prevention/treatment.

The program should include a method for adequately evaluating its effectiveness by having employee interviews, testing, and observing work practices. Training for employees should consist of general and specific job training:

  1. General training – Employees who are potentially exposed to ergonomic hazards should be given formal instruction on the hazards associated with their jobs and their equipment. This includes information on the varieties of MSDs, what risk factors causes/contributes to them, how to recognize and report symptoms and how to prevent these disorders. Such instruction should be repeated at least annually.
  2. Job-specific training – New employees should receive an initial orientation and hands-on training prior to being placed in a full-production job. Each new employee should receive a demonstration of the proper use and procedures of all tools/equipment that they are assigned to use, such as:
  • Handling techniques of knives.
  • Tools/devices associated with individual workstations.
  • Guards and safety equipment, including PPE.
  • Proper lifting techniques.
  1. Training of supervisors/managers – Supervisors/managers are responsible for ensuring that employees follow safe work practices and receive appropriate training. Supervisors/managers must undergo training comparable to that of the employees, including additional training that will enable them to recognize the early signs and symptoms of MSDs and to recognize and reinforce the ergonomic program.