Ergonomics Revolutionizes Workplace

Article excerpt

NEW YORK _ Make the tool fit the worker. Ergonomics. It hardly sounds revolutionary, but it's revolutionizing the workplace.

Chairs for proper posture, adjustable computer stations, assembly lines at the right height, and tools that don't vibrate seem sensible. Yet, 5 million Americans have injuries that stem from improper ergonomics, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health said.

"An ergonomic problem is as likely to get you as everything else put together," said Roger Stephens, head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's ergonomic division.

Ergonomics has become a major workplace concern of the 1990s. Labor is demanding it, companies are implementing it, and governments are regulating it. And some are making a profit from the problem. As in all fields, snake-oil salesmen exist, but work is under way to accredit experts.

Automation speeds the pace of work, and repetition of an awkward or overextended motion can stress the hands, arms, back or legs. By the next decade, half of all workers will have jobs with the potential for repetitive-motion injury, the Institute said.

In the past, a person using an old-fashioned typewriter, for instance, stopped typing to make corrections, change paper and look up the spelling of a word. A person on a word processor has none of those built-in breaks.

The consequences of poor ergonomics can be debilitating.

Sandra Peddie was an assistant editor at New York Newsday in Long Island when a repetitive strain injury in her forearms forced her to take disability leave in 1990, she said.

"At my worst, I couldn't lift up a teacup. I couldn't dress myself,"

said Peddie, 37. She said pain still prevents her from driving or turning doorknobs. She tried to go back to work on a voice-activated computer, but found it too painful.

Her case is extreme, but repetitive injuries in 1982 accounted for 21 percent of occupational illnesses. By 1990, they accounted for 56 percent, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said.

As a result, "Ergonomics is becoming an integral part of an overall safety program within a number of large companies," said Marilyn Joyce, president of the Joyce Institute, a Seattle-based ergonomics consultant.

"Just as safety people have to deal with fire hazards or chemical hazards . . . they now are having to look at the tools that people are using."

Textron Inc. implemented ergonomic changes in 1989 in hopes of reducing back injuries at plants that built helicopters and fastners, said company spokesman Raymond W. Caine Jr. Safety and production supervisors also were trained to look for potential ergonomic hazards, he said.

A year into the program, the number of back injuries was down 10 percent and productivity increased in some cases, Caine said. …

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