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Musculoskeletal Disorders: How to Manage Hidden Ergonomic Risks

Adapted from an article in Facility Safety Management.

Some of the most devastating workplace safety problems are often the ones we don’t see coming. Slow-developing musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are one such example. According to OSHA’s studies on the financial toll of MSDs, American businesses incur $20 billion per year in direct MSD-related expenses alone. 

MSDs account for a full ⅓ of all workers compensation costs because they’re difficult for the average person to spot before it’s too late. However, with better education about MSD risks and smart ergonomic solutions, today’s workplaces can do better.

What We Don’t Know Will Eventually Hurt Us

Part of what makes MSDs an invisible threat is the fact that they are often caused by seemingly small, repetitive tasks. Awkward or briefly stressful movements are made worse over time, sometimes without an employee knowing until chronic back pain or joint sprains result. By then, the musculoskeletal damage has already been done, frequently making surgery and down time a necessity.

Late detection is part of what makes MSDs so costly. OSHA’s diligently-collected data reveals that the average business must earn an extra $8 million in sales for every $260,000 lost to an MSD. If hidden MSD risk could be identified early on, preventative measures might save employees and businesses considerable grief. However, that’s easier said than done.

OSHA’s 50 lb. payload lifting guideline was designed to be a reasonable estimate for what employers and employees can expect on the job. It should not be treated as a guarantee.  Unfortunately, some employees may not realize this. In reality, slow-developing MSDs can happen to anyone, even when following the guidelines.

In fact, OSHA’s research shows that even when lifting weights under 40 lbs., employees can experience serious injury in certain workplace contexts. In reality, MSD injury risk varies by the employee. For businesses with a wide range of ages, genders, and sizes among staff, it can be especially difficult to rely on guidelines, such as OSHA’s 50 lb. rule.

When employees stretch the rules, the consequences can be even worse. Engineers at Electro Kinetic Technologies regularly discover that existing safety protocols and processes are not being consistently followed in customer facilities. In fast-paced lean manufacturing environments where efficiency is everything, it makes sense that highly motivated team members may not want to follow the rules 100% of the time.

This is why motorized or automated equipment is often necessary to address hidden injury risks. Their ease of operation helps to encourage compliance, and can actually help employees complete their projects more efficiently. The more realistic our solutions are, the more worthwhile the investment in them will be.

Where an Engineer Might Find Hidden MSDs

The first step in addressing hidden injury risks is to find out what we don’t know. Consulting with outside experts on lean manufacturing processes and ergonomic equipment can provide a much-needed fresh angle. At Electro Kinetic Technologies, we use facility walk-throughs to assess existing equipment, processes, and storage configurations for any gaps in safety or efficiency that our customers may not see.

For example, we might notice hidden ergonomic risks during non-routine tasks, such as moving robotic equipment to a cleaning area, in and out of storage, or to another part of the plant. We commonly find that workplaces are vulnerable to MSDs during intermediate processes, such as:

  • Supplying materials to a workcell
  • Transporting workpieces between cells
  • Removing material waste from a cell
  • Moving products from workcells to shipping

Other hidden ergonomic problems are even more subtle. An awkward tilt to a cart’s handle is enough to cause injury — especially when the handle height doesn’t match the height of the employee. We also find MSD risks beyond primary transport processes. For example, after heavy materials reach their destination, employees can experience injury when pushing or lifting them onto shelving or a platform. By taking a holistic account of potential injury risks, including during non-routine processes, engineers can spot problems in their facilities before they cause any harm.

A Custom, Comprehensive Approach

After conducting a thorough investigation and identifying any potential safety risks, it’s time to invest in a solution. Whatever strategy a business invests in should pay for itself over time by reducing insurance premiums, preventing injury, and maximizing productivity.

Standard motorized cart and tugger models often work well in solving simple transport problems, such as moving inventory from point A to point B. However, hidden MSD risks that result from small movements or intermediate tasks often require a more custom solution. For example, our engineers will sometimes use custom roll-top scissor lift carts to safely lift product up to shelf height, or shift a workpiece into position. We may also design custom cart handles to suit all employees, no matter their size or height.

Customizations can also improve the overall ergonomics of the operation. Upgrades such as wireless controls allow all employees, including the operator, to stand a safe distance away from the load during transport. Building a custom overhead track can keep transport processes away from forklifts, people, and other equipment. Whether a once-hidden safety risk impacts a single position or the entire floor, there is a custom solution to solve it.

Though it may take time and resources to nail down a seemingly small problem, hidden safety risks are just as real and costly as the more obvious ones. With the right technology, education, and expertise, hidden injury risks can even provide new opportunities to continuously improve an operation. What makes us safer, also makes us more productive and more profitable.

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