For a variety of reasons, the level of concern and research devoted to ergonomics issues has exploded over the past 25 years. As a leading cause of occupational injuries and illnesses, the number of lost work days and mounting expenses associated with this problem have continued to rise.
However, a great number of questions remain about the best ways to control ergonomics problems. Over the years, so many products, services and techniques have been introduced into the ergonomics field that risk managers may have difficulty identifying the most appropriate steps to take. The significance of the problem and the current lack of regulatory guidance led the RIMS Health and Safety Committee and American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) to form a joint effort to assess member needs in addressing ergonomics issues. It is not the intent of this group to conduct ergonomics research or to suggest a "one and only" method of approaching this issue, but rather to develop a compilation of ergonomics "best practices" with input from members of both organizations. The group hopes to collect the best information available and to define recommended steps to address ergonomics in a manner that is sensitive to the type and size of operation, as well as variance in the availability of internal technical assistance. This information will provide a guide to enable risk and safety managers to make informed choices regarding ergonomics remedies and obtain effective assistance.
A Growing Exposure
Although occupational injuries are a very old problem, the term "ergonomics" apparently didn't exist until about 120 years ago. Around that time, the term was coined in Poland from two Greek words--ergos, meaning work, and nomos, meaning laws--hence the familiar definition of ergonomics as "the laws of work." Even though some ergonomics research was conducted in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, the focus was primarily on workplace machinery or processes. It wasn't until around the time of World War II that humans became part of the research equation. About the same time that the United States began working on "human engineering," the Ergonomics Research Society was being formed in Great Britain. Similar groups began to appear in a number of countries, prompting a worldwide meeting in Sweden in 1961.
While the terms used to describe this emerging specialty have varied from "ergonomics" to "human engineering" or "human factors," the common bond has been an effort to address the problems presented when a human's physical capacity to resist injury is exceeded by the tasks in his or her environment.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics stated that during 1993, "sprain and strain was, by far, the leading injury and illness category in every major industry division. Similarly, workers' backs and trunks were the most common body parts affected. Back sprain, in fact, accounted for nearly a fourth of the survey case total." The BLS statistics indicated that within the United States:
* there were a total of 6,255,300 injuries and 482,100 illnesses;
* about 63 percent of the illnesses (302,000) were disorders associated with repeated trauma--a figure five times that of the next leading cause. This figure also represents a five-fold increase in this type of illness since 1985;
* of the more than 2,252,000 cases that resulted in days lost from work, nearly 43 percent involved sprains and strains; slightly more than 27 percent involved the back; more than 4 percent were repetitive motion disorders; and less than 2 percent were reported as carpal tunnel syndrome;
* the median days away from work was six, while the median days lost to repetitive motion disorders was 20.
In line with these statistics, various reports from insurance companies have placed the cost of ergonomics-related cases as high as 40 percent of the total injury cost reported in the United States. …