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.
OSHA REFORM ACT
What workers need, given the sharp rise in these disorders, is a new OSHA
ergonomics standard. But OSHA doesnt 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,
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:
REPEATED HAND ACTIONS
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
AWKWARD HAND POSITIONS
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 dont 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, dont put molded grip handles with finger grooves onto these
tools. They might fit comfortably for one persons hand, but be a poor fit and cause
discomfort to others.)
SOME OTHER POINTERS
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