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Ergonomics and Health

UE News, March 1993

ERGONOMICS IS A SCIENCE which seeks to change and redesign the work process in order to reduce worker injuries and illness on the job. It is also a hot item in the news these days, since over half of all work-related illnesses in the U.S. are caused by ergonomic hazards (see UE NEWS, Oct. 27, 1989).

These hazards cause severe hand and wrist pain among auto workers, meatpacking workers and many other manufacturing workers. They also contribute to back injuries among manufacturing and other workers. One third of all specialty glass workers suffer from ergonomic illnesses.

Recent studies show that 50 percent of all supermarket cashiers suffer from ergonomics-related disorders, as they constantly twist their hands and arms to record prices on their laser-beam cash registers. Clerical workers, as well as newspaper reporters, suffer high rates of these disorders.

The illnesses caused by ergonomic hazards go by many names: carpal tunnel syndrome, tenosynovitis, tendinitis, etc. Collectively these disorders are often called Cumulative Trauma Disorders (CTDs) or Repetitive Strain Injuries (RSIs). But whatever their names, these disorders are related — they are all caused by a poor fit between the job and the worker.


What workers need, given the sharp rise in these disorders, is a new OSHA ergonomics standard. But OSHA doesn’t have such a standard. It has a set of guidelines for the meatpacking industry which are recommended, but not required. Then last summer, along with other presidential-election year promises, OSHA announced that it intended (ho-hum) to adopt an ergonomics standard for all industries.

The best, most certain way to get an OSHA ergonomics standard would be for Congress to pass the comprehensive OSHA Reform Act. This act would require OSHA to adopt an ergonomics standard within one year after it is passed.

[Editor's Note: See Ergonomics Ban Overturned, August 1996]

Until we win passage of this bill, how can we identify the ergonomic hazards in our plants and shops, and what can we do to correct them? Here are few important ergonomic risk factors and their solutions:


Constant repetition of the same hand or wrist actions can strain and inflame nerves and muscles (tenosynovitis, tendinitis) and/or cause severe wrist pains (carpal tunnel syndrome). If you have to handle 25 small objects each minute, by the end of an eight- hour workshift, you have repeated the same motion 10,000 times. No wonder your body rebels against this punishment; it needs some recovery time.

Some solutions: Management has to slow down the rate of production at this workstation, or else put more people to work there. Also, highly repetitive work requires workers to have more rest time, at least 15 minutes of rest for every two hours of such work.


The human hand and arm work best when the wrist is in a neutral position. If the wrist is routinely bent up or down while working, or if the hand is bent sideways (relative to your arm), this can cause carpal tunnel pain. For example, frequent use of ordinary screw drivers or hand-held pliers results in bending of wrists and often wrist pain. Similarly, if you have to bend your wrist to reach into a metal frame and carry out some task, then you may be at ergonomic risk.

Some solutions: Press management to purchase hand or power tools with bent or redesigned handles, so that your wrist is straight while working. The same thing might also be accomplished by tilting or rotating the work so that you don’t have to bend your arm to reach into the working area.


If high levels of force are used on repetitive jobs, hand and wrist pains can result — for example, when tightly-fitting plastic sleeves are forced into a metal chassis, or when plier grips regularly have to be squeezed hard by your hand.

Typical solutions: Use power tools to exert pressure, rather than hands and arms. Use more powerful pliers, and/or cushion hand grips with soft plastic or rubber covers. (By the way, don’t put molded grip handles with finger grooves onto these tools. They might fit comfortably for one person’s hand, but be a poor fit and cause discomfort to others.)


  • Tools and equipment should be designed so that workers’ fingers do not have to pinch, twist or otherwise exert pressure against a resisting force.

  • Make sure that tool grips come in different sizes to fit all hand sizes, large and small.

  • Also look out for other motions which can give rise to ergonomic hazards, such as wringing motions, insertions of small screws, and the looping of wire with pliers.

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