Saturday, 01 October 2005 20:23

Ergonomics: Preventing Injury

Written by 
Among utility workforces there are many excuses for not practicing sound ergonomics along with safety. The most common excuse is that an aging workforce is naturally more injury prone and there is nothing that can be done about it. Another excuse is: "we've always done it that way."
To make matters worse, many firms have hired ergonomics consultants who deliver totally unworkable proposals. For example, one consulting firm suggested to a meter-servicing unit that they install an expensive ($10,000) electric motor height-adjustable platform to accommodate a shorter-stature worker at an infrequently used workstation. Not only was it costly, but it would have taken several minutes of "travel" time for each raising/lowering. With few changes, the worker was able to work at an independent location and the original workstation worked fine for the remaining worker population.
Another firm offered their best idea to a utility on reducing worker shoulder injuries to tree trimmers: always use a bucket truck, a solution that in many cases is unfeasible. Consultants who fail to understand industry/municipal/safety constraints are easy to find.

ERGONOMICS AND UTILITIES
The idea of applying ergonomics to line work is a foreign one, since most people assume ergonomics only has to do with computer workstations. But what happens if you don't address the ergonomic reasons for injuries? The company not only has higher monetary costs, but also human costs when workers often go home hurting. Over time, the "walking wounded" appear. They hurt their backs, go to the chiropractor, are out for a while, then come back to the same work. They are not 100 percent recovered. They favor the previously injured body part and injure another. The same thing happens over and over again because we try to patch up individuals instead of fixing the problem—which is, of course, the work positioning.
Let's cut to the meat of the issue with the facts: there are numerous work tasks that result in utility and telecommunications workers having a high rate of non-acute injuries such as strains and sprains, rotator cuff tears, tendinitis, lateral epicondylitis, lower back disorders, and carpal tunnel syndrome. Companies need to be assessing these tasks for ergonomic risk factors. Treating these injuries costs companies a lot more money in workers' compensation, health care, retraining, replacement workers, and lost productivity than the simple, acute injuries like dog bites and slips and falls. Ergonomic injuries take time to develop, not just one event. Utility safety risk management programs don't prioritize ergonomic injuries as the first and most important injuries to reduce, even though they cost more than acute injuries. Instead, they spend a lot of money treating the effects rather than the causes.
So what can you do about it? Here is the simple version.
Get some utility-specific (not office or manufacturing) ergonomics training. Learn which postures and actions are most hazardous and how to apply task analysis (one to two days). Start with your safety staff. After a while, you will also need utility-specific managers' and workers' ergonomics awareness training (one to two hours). Do not confuse this with body positioning and stretching training.
Carefully review your company's injury patterns. Look for work groups that have a lot of repeat injuries to the same body part. Even more typical are multiple body part injuries: first the back, then the elbow, then the shoulder. You especially want to identify body parts at risk, then quantify the risk factors.
Make a list of some of the most demanding tasks of this group. Prioritize your efforts.
If you can, get the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) ergonomics handbooks for overhead, manhole/ vault, and direct buried cable. These handbooks are user-friendly and field-worker tested. (OSHA's telecommunications guidelines were written by ergonomists with no utility background.)
You may need a utility-savvy ergonomist to do this training or solve the more complicated tasks.
You will have the best results in the long run when your worker-safety teams are trained to identify and solve ergonomic injuries.
Start simple—with implementation. Adopt a couple of no-brainer solutions. Refer to them as ergonomic. Once everyone sees the benefits, worker/supervisor buy-in to the program will grow.

A NO-BRAINER SOLUTION
Using plywood as ground cover for vehicles to drive over muddy or landscaped yards is costly. The plywood needs frequent, expensive replacement. For about three times its cost, you can buy plastic, composite or fiberglass mats with handles. They are easier to handle—many are lighter and one person can manage them easily—and last for years. They prevent back injuries, save time and pay for themselves in a couple months. You can even put them in a permanent rack to lift on and off the truck to wherever you need them. ip

Patricia Seeley, CPE of Ergonomics Solutions, LLC, did in-house ergonomics for several years at We Energies. Contact her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. , (262) 968-5443, www.ergonomics-solutions.com.

Read 5185 times Last modified on Wednesday, 17 November 2010 18:24

Latest from Patricia Seeley, CPE

iP Contributing Authors

Subscribe-now-lg

FREE Subscription to iP Magazine.

We'll send you 6 issues a year at no charge!

Safety Management

Utility safety management is no easy job. Managing personnel, staying current on leg/reg issues, understanding record keeping processes and policy enforcement are only a few of the areas Incident Prevention provides in-depth coverage.

Read Safety Management articles

Personal Protective Equipment

OSHA requires the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) to reduce employee exposure to hazards. FR Clothing, Gloves, Head Protection, Eyewear and Protective Footwear are all PPE.  The  articles listed below discuss their proper use and maintenance. Attend iP Safety Conference & Expo to learn more about the latest PPE products.

Read Personal Protective articles

Tailgate Safety Topics

Tailgate meetings are a critical communication component of any strong utility safety program. Incident Prevention supplies the utility industry with topics for these important meetings. Each article can be printed out for use in the field or emailed to your crews.

Tailgate Safety Topic articles

Worksite Safety

Daily hazards face utility and contractor work crews. Understanding the risks involved, knowing the proper procedures, building a strong culture of open communication and constant awareness will prevent incidents. Our articles on aerial work, underground construction, grounding techniques, high-voltage risks provide utility workers a better understanding of the task at hand.  iP Safety Conferences are another great resource for understanding hazards.

Read Worksite Safety articles

Reader Profiles

Building an effective safety culture requires strong safety leadership.  The iP reader profiles features utility industry safety managers who know what it takes to overcome obstacles that brings their workers home each and every day.

Reader Profile articles

Leadership Development

As our current utility workforce retires, new utility safety leaders are coming onboard all of the time.  Incident Prevention is here to assist in the development of their leadership skills.  Managing people, understanding generational differences, building strong communications skills, establishing accountability are just a few of the subject areas covered in the magazine and at iP Safety Conferences.

Leadership Development articles

 

Equipment Operations

Safe equipment operations is required on every jobsite.  Utility work requires the use of cranes, derricks, buckets, trenchers, dozers and more.  Learn about the hazards associated with equipment operations in the articles featured below.

 Equipment Operations articles

Grounding

Grounding systems are designed so they provide the necessary safety functions. Understanding different grounding methods is critical for utility workers.  Incident Preventions relies upon industry experts to author these much needed articles.  For better insight on grounding methods used in the field you may want to attend iP Safety Conference and hear their in-depth presentations.

Read Grounding articles