Ergonomics and the benefits of good work for individuals with Musculoskeletal disorders
We know that the human body needs physical activity, mental stimulation and social interaction to stay healthy and to thrive, and that engaging in good work is good for us. For individuals who have a musculoskeletal disorder, whether acute or chronic, remaining engaged in good work for as long as possible is important for their health and well-being.
What is Ergonomics?
The word ‘ergonomics’ is Greek in origin and means natural laws (nomo) of work (ergo). The principles of ergonomics aim to create a balance between the demands of work and the capacity of the worker through the design of good work and jobs, work systems, environments, equipment and loads.
Our physical and psychological capacity for various types of job demands is dynamic and changes from time to time. When the demands of a task or job, whether physical or mental, are greater than the capability of the individual doing the work, stress (physical or psychological), and consequently strain and injury, may result. For individuals who have limited physical and psychological capabilities, or for jobs and tasks that are highly demanding, the application of ergonomics is especially important.
The primary aim of applying ergonomic principles is to improve the function, health and performance of people through the design and modification of various aspects of work such as:
a) job and task design (eg. how often or how long a task is performed),
b) work systems (eg. staffing and communication methods)
c) environment (eg. how much space is made available to do the job),
d) equipment (eg. a trolley),
e) loads that need to be handled (eg. handle, size and weight of packages)
At the organisational and individual levels (particularly those with a musculoskeletal disorder), ergonomic principles may be applied at all three levels of prevention:
• primary (before an injury presents),
• secondary (soon after signs and symptoms present) and
• tertiary (when the condition has led to some physical impairment).
Ergonomics is a key approach to designing good work so that people can perform well and enjoy their jobs without feeling strained.
What are manual tasks and how are they related to musculoskeletal disorders?
Manual tasks refer to any activity or sequence of activities that requires a person to use their physical body (musculoskeletal system) to perform work. Manual tasks can place strain on the body if:
• the forces required to perform the tasks are excessive (the use of high force when lifting, lowering, pushing, pulling, carrying or otherwise moving, holding or restraining any person, animal or thing);
• actions required are highly repetitive and prolonged without adequate breaks;
• postures required to be adopted are awkward or sustained; and
• using tools or equipment exposes workers to hand arm or whole body vibration.
The main health problems that can arise as a result of performing manual tasks that are poorly designed and the worker has no control over, are musculoskeletal disorders. There are many duty holders that have responsibilities under various aspects of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) and the Occupational Safety and Health Regulations (OSH Regs).The important systems which all organisations should have in place include those to prevent and respond to incidents related to performing hazardous manual tasks.
What should one do if they suspect that work is aggravating their musculoskeletal condition?
If you feel that the tasks you are performing at work is placing a physical strain on your body and leading to discomfort or pain, let your workplace supervisor know. The aim of this is so that your supervisor can investigate the situation. They may conduct a direct investigation or a risk assessment of the manual tasks you perform so that they can have a better understanding of which factors may be leading to or aggravating your condition and what solutions may be put in place to prevent this.
An injury at work can have significant consequences for your personal and professional life. Early medical intervention and treatment (such as consulting your GP and receiving treatment and advice from a physiotherapist), and early return to good work is very important should you experience work related musculoskeletal disorders. Workers’ compensation laws in WA aim to minimise the impact of a workplace injury by ensuring injured workers are fairly compensated while they are unable to work, and assisted in their return to work following an injury.
For more challenging situations, your workplace may want to consult a specialised ergonomist, or another health professional, such as a physiotherapist or occupational therapist who understands ergonomic principles.
To find out more about ergonomics, physiotherapy and occupational therapy visit the website:
To find out more about reducing the risks of injury from performing manual tasks visit: WorkSafe – Safety Topics: Manual Tasks at www.commerce.wa.gov.au/worksafe/introduction-manual-tasks
To find out more about injury management and workers compensation visit: WorkCover- Workers’ Compensation & Injury Management: A Guide for Workers
by Jean Mangharam, BSc (Physio) (Hons) MSc (Ind Hyg/Ergo) Principal Scientific Officer, Human Factors and Ergonomics, Work Safe WA