Employers need to be aware of the job roles and tasks within their company that can pose significant ergonomic risks to employees. After identifying these tasks and roles, a plan to minimize ergonomic hazards can be created and implemented.
Ergonomic hazards in the workplace
There are several potential ergonomic hazards in the workplace, which could adversely affect workers. Common ergonomic hazards include:
Contact stress puts direct pressure on a person's tendons, nerves, or blood vessels. External contact stress occurs from contact with an external object such as a desk or machine. Internal contact stress can cause muscles or other tissues to become damaged.[Find out all about contact stress in "9 Common Causes of Contact Stress and How to Educate Employees"].
Handling tools or objects with sharp grooves, edges, or grips
From industrial settings to kitchen settings, such as a cook using a sharp knife, there are many tools in the workplace that can cause potential damage if handled incorrectly.
Walking, kneeling, or other types of contact with hard surfaces
Repetitive interactions with uncomfortable surfaces can cause pain in the joints.
Forceful exertion with unprotected parts of the body
Employees should be given the appropriate attire to execute their job tasks safely.
Machinery or office setups that put the worker into an awkward or poor posture
Tools and machinery that are placed just out of an ideal reach can cause these problems. Similarly, a poorly designed office chair, or one that is not a good fit for the worker, can cause issues.
Repetitive motions such as packing, sweeping, typing, assembling
Of all the possible ergonomic hazards in the workplace, repetitive motions have been found to be most prevalent, with an estimated 27% of workers in the US being exposed continually.
Forceful motions such as pushing, pulling, and lifting
These can adversely affect tendons and joints when movements are performed incorrectly or repeatedly, or the load is not appropriate for the person's level of strength.
Stationary positions such as sitting at a desk all day long, or standing at a conveyor belt
This is a characteristic of sedentary jobs. Prolonged stationary positions can damage muscles and joints and cause discomfort and pain.
Vibrating tools such as jackhammers
Certain tools can contribute to muscle fatigue and cause nerve damage.
Tasks that need to be done in extreme temperatures
Any employee who must undertake their role in an extreme temperature setting could potentially be at risk for health issues such as frostbite or heat stroke.
Work environments with an excessive amount of noise have the potential to damage hearing.[Find out more about hazards in "10 Ergonomic Hazards in the Workplace to Look Out For"].
Problems that can be caused by ergonomic hazards
Overall, ergonomic hazards can create several problems for employees and employers including:
- Reduce worker productivity
- Discomfort and/or pain for the worker
- Increased risk for developing musculoskeletal disorders
Problems may compound over time as they turn into a chronic issue that becomes harder to fix.
Potentially ergonomically hazardous job tasks
1. Computer-centric and other desk-based tasks
A desk and chair that is set up without considering ergonomic principles can adversely affect the worker. Poor spinal alignment and posture that creates pressure on joints and muscles can cause discomfort and/or pain.
Inadequate lighting, temperature, humidity, workstation tools and equipment, and the general setup of the space are other ergonomic factors that can compound the adverse effects of computer-centric or desk-based tasks.
Find out all the details of workstation set up in "An in-depth look at workstation analysis", "The Importance of Setting up Ergonomic Workstations For Office Workers" and "10 Important Ergonomic Aids For Office Workers".
As well as the mechanics of office setup, the repetitive motion of tasks such as typing adds another potential ergonomic hazard. Cognitive ergonomics should also be considered.
Compounded with this is the sedentary nature of desk-based tasks. If a worker stays in a stationary position for long periods of time, muscles and joints can become tighter and weaker, potentially leading to pain, discomfort, and an increased risk for musculoskeletal disorders.
2. Standing tasks
Job roles or tasks that require workers to be on their feet all day can pose just as many ergonomic risks as roles where employees are required to sit for long periods of time.
Although standing is a natural position for the body, problems can arise when a person is not able to move freely or change position regularly. Resulting problems can include muscle fatigue and postural issues that can create muscle and joint pain and stiffness.
Assembly line workers, sales and retail staff, and machinery operators are a few of the job roles that are at risk of the ergonomic hazards related to standing tasks. As well as the hazards associated with stationary positions, some standing workers (e.g. assembly line employees) may be subjected to the added ergonomic risks from performing repetitive tasks.[Find out how to keep standing employees healthy and comfortable in "7 Ergonomic Aids for Employees Who Work in a Standing Position"].
3. Manual packing of goods and handling of materials
Manual packing and handling of materials can pose ergonomic risks, firstly due to the excessive level of force that may be required. Lifting, pushing, pulling, bending, and twisting are some of the movements that can pose ergonomic risks, especially when a load is involved.
These types of job tasks may also require the worker to stand for long periods of time. The repetitive nature of doing so, coupled with other repetitive movements such as twisting can increase the risk of lower back pain and other musculoskeletal related issues.[Find out more in "A Look at Lower Back Pain in the Workplace" and "Pushing, Pulling and Lifting: Ergonomic Best Practices to Follow to Avoid Injury"].
Driving for long periods of time can pose some of the same ergonomic risks that desk-bound workers face. Prolonged periods of sitting in a static posture can lead to problems with muscles and joints, and the associated pain and discomfort that can come with that.
Workers who spend long periods of time driving are also subjected to ergonomic risks from low-level vibrations, especially those who are driving on bumpy surfaces. Mental fatigue from prolonged concentration and temperature control in the vehicle are other important ergonomic considerations and potential hazards.[Find out more about keeping driving employees safe and healthy in "8 Important Ergonomic Aids For Drivers"].
5. Machinery Operators
Machine operators can be subjected to the ergonomic hazards associated with standing or sitting-related tasks, depending on what their job role entails. The design of the machine and other tools and equipment that are used can also produce ergonomic risks.
Equipment operators are often faced with repetitive tasks that can contribute to mechanical stress on joints and muscles, contact stress from hard surfaces, as well as eye strain and fatigue from staying focused on one object for extended periods of time.
Heavy machine operators can also be subjected to the ergonomic hazards associated with maneuvering and handling heavy loads.
Find out more about creating healthy workspaces that minimize risks in "The Key Elements of a Healthy Workspace" and "Keeping Your Workforce Safe: Effective Ways to Avoid Workplace Injuries". A trained ergonomist can address physical, cognitive, and organizational ergonomics to help ensure that workplace tasks can be done safely, effectively, and efficiently.