Ergonomics: The New Frontier

Contributor: Scott Schneider, MS, FAIHA

Ergonomics is not a four-letter word. Under the OSHA Act, every worker is guaranteed a workplace “free of recognized hazards.” Yet in 2020, a report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that almost a quarter of a million workers in the United States lost work because of musculoskeletal disorders (Table MSD1) and this is likely an underestimate. These sprain and strain injuries often shorten careers and cause disability in retirement. In the late 1990s, Federal OSHA and several states attempted to promulgate an ergonomics standard but were struck down by state legislatures and Congress under the Congressional Review Act (CRA).

Why is this common hazard and workplace injury often ignored? As with hearing loss, workers who change jobs frequently (e.g., construction workers) have a hard time showing work-relatedness for injuries that occur over time—despite numerous studies showing them to be at high risk because of their work. Workers’ compensation claims are often disputed and many workers get discouraged from even filing one. Sprain and strain injuries are also hard to prove. Pain is subjective so someone may be in pain but can’t prove it. Yet this doesn’t mean the injuries are not real. The Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index for 2021 claims that “overexertion involving outside sources (handling object)” is the number one costly injury costing $13.3 billion a year. Injuries from awkward postures and repetitive tasks cost an additional $6.4 billion a year. These three constitute about a third of all lost workday injuries.

What are you doing to prevent these injuries? Some employers claim that they are just part of the job and there is nothing you can do to prevent them. Workers are blamed for not lifting correctly. And, because of their chronic nature, many don’t feel compelled to address them or take preventative actions. Many employers jumped on “quick fixes” like back belts which have not proven effective or stretching programs which have also not been shown to be helpful. But ergonomic hazards can be addressed and musculoskeletal injuries prevented.

The best solution to preventing these injuries is prevention through design and proper planning. Are heavy materials being delivered by cart and dolly close to where they will be used, for example, or do they require manual handling? Do you have a policy that no material weighing more than 50 lbs. be lifted by yourself?  Are materials being stored off the ground level to allow them to be accessed more safely? There are lots of new tools and equipment available to make work easier and allow workers to “work smarter not harder.” Asking experienced workers for input in redesigning your workplace and process is essential, a process called participatory ergonomics. A few resources I would recommend include:

Ergonomics is too important to ignore. There are lots of solutions available to implement and they can have a huge impact on worker health as well as improving productivity. This is perhaps the most important hazard for employers to address.

About the Author

Scott Schneider has worked on occupational safety and health issues in the Labor Movement for over 40 years. He worked for the Carpenter’s Union, The Workers’ Institute for Safety and Health, the Center for Construction Research and Training (CPWR), and the Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America (LHSFNA), from which he recently retired as the Director of Occupational Safety and Health. Two of his many notable contributions include co-authoring one of the first review articles on ergonomics and construction (1994), as well as his role in helping organize both the first national and international conference on ergonomics in construction.

Over his career, he helped develop standards to protect workers from asbestos and silica, fought to protect workers from noise exposure and ergonomic injuries as well as in areas such as work zone safety, fall prevention, and improving safety climate in construction. He is a fellow member of the American Industrial Hygiene Association and was awarded the William Steiger Award by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) for his contributions to the field. Additionally, in 2019, he received the AIHA Social Responsibility Award.

Jacqueline "Jackie" Annis is an industrial hygienist with the Office of Partnerships and Recognition, Directorate of Cooperative and State Programs in OSHA’s National Office.  Jackie’s primary responsibilities include developing and overseeing internal policies and procedures for the VPP, reviewing VPP on-site evaluation reports for process safety management information, serving as the National Office liaison for two of OSHA’s ten Regions, and facilitating the management of OSHA’s National Strategic Partnership Program.  She is an integral part of OSHA’s National Office team. 

She has served with the Agency for 36 years, including five years as a senior industrial hygienist in OSHA’s Office of Health Enforcement, Directorate of Enforcement Programs in the National Office and 17 years as a compliance safety and health officer in the Denver, CO Area Office.  Prior to her tenure at OSHA, Jackie worked as an industrial hygienist for the Department of the Navy in Alameda, California.  Jackie obtained a Bachelor of Science degree from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA in 1983.

Wayne Howard earned a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from UC Davis and has spent 12 years with Shell (at Martinez) refinery, 3 years with the consulting firm Process Safety, 15 years with Valero (at Benicia), and the last 10 years in the Corporate Process Safety Department. He is the Valero representative to AFPM's Advancing Process Safety Initiative.

Nathan Obaugh, PE is a senior engineer in the Safety and Operational Excellence Group at NuStar Energy. Nathan has over 10 years of PSM and process design experience in the petrochemical, refining and midstream industries. At NuStar, Nathan oversees all elements of the corporate PSM program and works directly on hazard analysis, process safety studies, PSM/RMP audits and provides process engineering support to the operations and capital projects groups.

Jared Teter, PhD is a senior staff scientist with a background in physics and hazards analysis. He has extensive experience in subscale testing of energetic materials and has served as program manager for several large testing and risk management projects. He has applied engineering and risk management protocols while evaluating the risk associated with propellant and explosives manufacturing, combustible dust, and other hazardous material related processes.

Tim Belitz has a degree in Environmental Health/Industrial Hygiene from Old Dominion University and a Master’s from Duke University. He has over 25 years of Industrial Health Safety and Environmental Experience and is a Certified Safety Professional. He has many years focused on Contractor Management and Process Safety programs.

Rob Walker graduated from Virginia Tech in Microbiology and Chemical Engineering. Rob has almost 35 years of experience working in the chemical plant and refining industry. His passion for Process Safety and Mechanical Integrity began very early in his career. Rob began with his current company, Honeywell, back in 2011.

Prasad Joshi has B.S. and M.S. Degrees in Chemical Engineering from two universities in India. Prasad has over 30 years’ experience in the business. He began with Honeywell in May 2022 as Principal Maintenance Engineer. He has worked internationally in Asia and Europe.