We all know the data. Typically, one third to one half of our field injuries are musculoskeletal disorders such as strains and sprains, rotator cuff syndrome, lower back disorders and tendonitis. Workers’ compensation costs for these injuries far exceed those for acute incidents such as burns, cuts and even fractures.
Sometimes we conclude that a lot of these injuries are essentially non-work related, weekend-athlete and Mr. Fixit events. Sometimes we have to admit that when our field workers see their private physicians for long-term lower back and other disorders, that there is at least a work-related component. We usually write it off to aging, not to wear and tear from long-term exposure to physical stressors. We can even make the situation worse with safety incentives such as pizza parties for no incidents, further discouraging early reporting and early treatment.
Until we adopt a worker-centered ergonomics approach, these incidents and costs will only continue to escalate. Our companies will “pay me now, or pay me later” in either workers’ compensation or increased health care premiums and reduced productivity.
There is a full continuum of ergonomics processes to address the work-related physical stressors that are associated with utility field tasks:
•Contact vendors to trial new tools.
•Analyze I/I data for patterns of MSDs – musculoskeletal disorders – and prioritize workgroups and tasks for I/I reductions.
•Train health and safety practitioners to identify ergonomic risk factors and suggest task, equipment, material and tool changes.
•Bring together workers as an ergonomics team.
•Aggressive reporting and accountability at H&S meetings of MSD patterns.
•Name a top level manager in each business group as an ergonomics “champion” to affect change in tooling and processes.
•Adopt a strict business case methodology for H&S improvements so that ergonomics rises to the top.
In the long run, all of these – in concert – will produce the best effects. In the short run, we often have individual supervisors trialing tools that vendors market as “ergonomic.” Few of these tools are actually designed with scientific ergonomics criteria; most are lighter, faster and appear to make the job easier, but can sometimes backfire by adding other problems to the task or creating new injury patterns. They can be more acceptable to the worker, but have no productivity or health benefit. What we need to purchase are tools that achieve all three.
We don’t have to look very far to find examples of work practices that are extremely physically demanding and would benefit from improved tooling, materials and equipment:
•Overhead work from the bucket, pole or hot sticking
•Pole pulling, setting
•Underground cable pulling, repair
•Elbow pulling, transformer work
Each utility needs to analyze the risk factors of a minimum of three tasks for each fieldwork group and begin to change its work practices to make the job less physically challenging. Certainly all of the EPRI handbooks are the prime resource (www.epri.com). Other resources include:
•American Industrial Hygiene Association. Ergonomics Program Guidance Document Aligned with ANSI/AIHA Z10-2005. Edited by Walt Rostykus ISBN 978-1-931504-92-8.
•Corlett, E.N. and Clark, T.S. The Ergonomics of Workspaces and Machines: A Design Manual. 2nd Edition. Taylor and Francis: London. 1995.
It is a very large mistake to make new tool trials your ergonomics process, to simply listen to what salespersons are marketing. This starts with an answer, not the critical question. You need a process that begins by identifying the ergonomic risk factors, with ergonomics training.
That can be hard to come by, since most ergonomists know little about utility fieldwork and spend their time in universities, manufacturing facilities and offices. Training your own people – H&S as well as workers and supervisors who know the work – in spotting work practices with high potential for long term MSDs will reap the most benefits in coming up with feasible and effective solutions.
This all takes years. It starts with commitment of personnel, of training, of investigation, and yes, money. However, it will all pay off abundantly.
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