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Ergonomics: Preventing Injury

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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 , (262) 968-5443, www.ergonomics-solutions.com.

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Guest Wednesday, 23 July 2014

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