4 Myths About Ergonomic Injury

Today not only do I want to address some of the most common myths that I come across about ergonomic injuries or musculoskeletal injuries, I also want to add value by sharing some of the strategies that I’ve used in the past to reduce injuries while at the same time, increase worker engagement with the ergonomics process.

Myth #1: Personal Attributes Don’t Affect Injury Risk

Firstly, most people are surprised to hear that work injuries are not only a result of the risks present in the workstation but also (even perhaps more importantly!) how the person chooses to live their lives outside of work! This is because the combination of the job’s specific ergonomic risk exposure level and the worker’s personal attributes (i.e.: age, gender, overall health) can increase susceptibility to developing an injury. Think of it like a ‘perfect storm’ of risk and personal attributes: if conditions are just right, than that person’s tissue tolerance can be surpassed. This is not an ideal situation to be in, obviously. When this happens, the person may feel pain, weakness, or fatigue as a result of an accumulation of strain in the muscles.

People’s tissues have tolerances within which they can work safely, until their capacity is overloaded. When tissues surpass their capacity to work safely, this puts them at risk of injury development.

Personal attributes that can increase injury susceptibility may include:

  • The worker’s age and gender
  • Overall health and fitness
  • Health habits (including smoking, poor eating habits, etc)
  • Work behaviours (such as sitting or standing for prolonged periods of time, using poor mousing mechanics, etc)
  • Activities outside the workplace that involve high physical forces, awkward postures, or repetitive actions

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Myth #2: Physical Risks are the Main Cause of Injury 

There are more than just the typical ‘physical’ risk factors present in the office environment. As reference, the 3 main physical ergonomic risk factors are:

  1. Repetitive Actions
    • High repetition (especially for long periods of time) is a risk factor related to work activities performed quickly and repeatedly. These require greater muscle effort to complete, and a consequence of highly repetitive work is that more rest and recovery is required for tissues to get back to within a normal or safe capacity.
  2. Forceful Exertions
    • The human body must always exert some kind of force to move or manipulate an object, or perform a task. However, if the amount of force is too much for the tissues to handle it can cause damage. Muscle damage occurs in two ways:
      • From one single event that requires muscles to generate a very high force level; or
      • From repeated or prolonged mid-to-high level exertions that may also be performed in awkward positioning.
  3. Awkward Postures
    • An awkward posture is defined by its deviation from neutral or optimal positions. Simply put, work is easier with more neutral postures. And, the greater deviated (flexed, extended, etc) that postures are from that neutral posture, the more risk that is introduced to the user. A neutral posture for most joints is near the middle of the full range of motion. Inherently, we all know that this is true. Take for instance trying to resist a force against your wrist; first with straight alignment of the wrist to the forearm, then with an awkward (bent/flexed wrist) posture. It takes a lot less effort to withstand that force with a straight/neutral wrist because it allows the muscles to function within their optimal range. Conversely, to withstand that force with a bent wrist will require a lot more effort and force. What all this means is that the more awkward a posture, the more that body area is exposed to ergonomic risk.

The really interesting thing is that research indicates that certain work organization factors can be related to an increased risk of MSI development. Researchers have found that there is an increased risk of injury when any of the physical risk factors (force, posture, and repetition) and adverse psychosocial or organizational factors are present, together. Additional studies have found that workers in jobs with higher levels of job strain associated with reduced levels of decision-making and high psychological demand report more symptoms related to neck and shoulder discomfort. Wow!

Psychosocial risks may include:

  • High job demands and workloads
  • Monotonous job tasks
  • Perceptions of low job control
  • A lack of clarity about job work
  • Rapid work pace or intensified workload
  • Low decision latitude/job control
  • Low social support
  • A lack of clarity about job worth, importance, or expectations
  • Low job satisfaction

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Myth #3: Tissue Capacity is Constant  

Have you ever felt especially tired at the end of the day or workweek? If not, you are probably some sort of ultra futuristic cyborg-robot. The truth is whether we like to admit it or not, work is tiring and fatiguing and also leads to a reduction or fatiguing of our tissue capacity.

Capacity is the tissue’s ability to cope with the various amounts of risk that the musculoskeletal system is exposed to. The interesting aspect of this is that a person’s capacity is not fixed and it can change overtime. Take, for instance our first example, a person’s capacity to handle risks at the beginning of the workday/workweek and at the end of the workday/workweek: people will always be more fatigued (capacity-reduced) at the end of a workday, especially at the end of the workweek. After a busy week, most of us need some recovery time to ‘recharge our batteries’. And, a lack of recovery time can lead to a buildup of strain, and result in warning signs such as skill reduction (for instance, the reduction of precision skills), fatigue, and eventually lead to worker discomfort.

Additionally, a person’s capacity can reduce as they age. And, interestingly, capacity can also improve proportionally with the improvement or training of a skill, and this is sometimes why, when learning a new task, some people may feel sore at the end of the workday. But this will reduce as the person becomes more proficient with the skill.Untitled design (9)

Myth #4: Injuries Start Suddenly

Have you ever heard of the term ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’? This phrase couldn’t be more true about musculoskeletal injuries, especially in the office. Now, in certain situations, I actually agree that extreme scenarios (like lifting a heavy box of printer paper) may result in a sudden or immediate injury. In this specific scenario it would be because the person’s exposure to risk is well beyond their capacity to tolerate it, leading to immediate injury. I would wager that you know someone (maybe you) that has been injured this way. It does happen. But most times we are never exposed to the level of risk that would result in a sudden injury, especially in office work. In the office, it is much more common to have injuries occur gradually or over a period of time. These injuries result from the wear and tear of normal work tasks normally over months or years.

The majority of musculoskeletal injuries have major warning signs that occur before the injury actually occurs.

For the majority of people, musculoskeletal injuries simply don’t appear out of thin air. There are pre-determined steps that map out the common ergonomic injury pathways. Take a look at the graphic below. Overtime, exposure to types of ergonomic risk (PRO-TIP: A combination of ergonomic risks will always be more risky than just one), can lead to occasional discomfort, and eventual frequent pain (aka injury)! So, steps should always be made to flag ergonomic risk and reduce sustained and substantial discomfort to the reduce the likelihood of injury.

There are many different ways to address ergonomic risk to add value to your or your client’s organization. These can include:

  • Office ergonomic training, focusing on signs and symptoms of injuries and how to identify (and fix) ergonomic risk in the office setting
    • Every new-hire can go through this training
    • Yearly hires can take quick ‘refresher’ training sessions
    • PRO-TIP: The more examples the merrier with these types of presentations and examples from staff can make it really interactive. After the presentation, the presenter can quickly visit each attendee’s workstation to ensure compliance. This method encourages employee engagement in the ergonomic process.
  • A process that identifies, documents, and addresses work discomfort
    • Discomfort surveys are a very valuable tool to help prioritize the need and urgency of ergonomic assessments, especially if your ergonomic department is very tiny. Last week we did a post all about them. You can check it out here.
  • Random ergonomic walk-throughs or audits
    • Use the element of surprise to your benefit by providing real world suggestions to staff. While it may be tempting to use the full element of surprise, you may want to provide a bit of warning so you don’t alienate staff with the ergonomics process – ergonomics shouldn’t be to police behaviours, but rather to offer suggestions in a friendly tone to reduce the likelihood of injury.

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There you have it, the top 4 Myths About Ergonomic Injuries! Like what you see in this post? Well you should subscribe to our weekly newsletter!

 

Through the administration of countless assessments in both private and public sectors, Darcie has gained a wealth of knowledge and built a successful practice in the field of ergonomics. She has extensive expertise in conducting office ergonomics assessments in large scale workplaces for all different types of scenarios, from simple adjustments to incredibly complex cases. Darcie also has vast experience in delivering training presentations on the various aspects of ergonomics “best practices” in the workplace. Darcie is a Certified Professional Ergonomist through the Board of Certification in Professional Ergonomics, as recognized by the International Ergonomics Association. She also has a Masters of Science, specializing in ergonomics. A little known fact about Darcie is that she once scored from half, off a free kick, in a university varsity soccer (football) match!

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