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Ergonomics and back health in the workplace
Do you have back pain right now? Then you are like so many others - statistics show 1 in 3 in the UK suffers from back issues at some point. Poor workplace procedures and standards are one of the main contributors back pain and other musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). These isses account for around 25% of the causes for incapacity to work.
We take a close look at ergonomics at work. Use our fact check to find out which risk factors lurk in everyday working life, which occupational groups are particularly at risk and what you should bear in mind when assessing the risks.
Fact check: What you should know about ergonomics in the workplace
Why is good ergonomics so important in the workplace?
Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are often caused by poor posture and physical strain at work. The most common symptoms of MSDs are neck and back pain. MSDs are among the most frequent causes of incapacity to work in the UK and worldwide and the second most frequent cause of early retirement.
Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) result in the following in Germany alone:
22.5% of all days off work
21,380 new pensions due to reduction in earning capacity
17.2 billion € Production loss
30.5 billion € loss in gross value added
Source: Safety and health at work - Reporting year 2017 / BAuA (ed.).
Back problems and other musculoskeletal disorders are not only associated with considerable suffering, but also with high costs due to absenteeism, loss of production, disruptions in operations or for rehabilitation. Good ergonomic workplace design makes an immensely important contribution to the prevention of health and economic damage.
Which occupational groups are particularly affected by back complaints and other musculoskeletal disorders?
Some occupational groups have a significantly increased risk of back problems and other musculoskeletal disorders. This is especially true for jobs where stress factors from physical work play a significant role. Blue collar workers are therefore particularly susceptible in manual occupations - in both manufacturing and the service sectors.
Infographic: Incapacity to work due to back problems according to occupational groups
What are the risk factors for musculoskeletal disorders in daily work activities?
Back complaints and musculoskeletal disorders arise when movements, postures or the handling of loads become too one-sided, too frequent or extreme. Typical physical stresses include ergonomically unfavourable working conditions such as:
Manual load handling
Lifting, carrying, pushing or pulling heavy loads without technical aids
Forced body postures
For example, by doing any of the following for long periods of time: standing, sitting, working above shoulder level, squatting, kneeling, etc.
Increased exertion or use of force
Activities in which high forces are applied or act on the body (e.g. climbing, hammering, drilling).
Repetitive work processes and movements, e.g. at assembly line workstations
What are the regulations for ergonomics in the workplace?
The Occupational Health and Safety Act (ArbSchG in Germany) provides the legal framework for the ergonomics duty of care in the workplace. According to §3 ArbschG, it is one of the general basic duties of the employer to ensure the safety and health of employees at work through occupational safety and health measures. Thus, within the framework of a risk assessment, the employer must determine the hazards present in the workplace (e.g. due to physical stress) and take sufficient preventive and protective measures.
The Ordinance on the Handling of Loads (LastenhandhabV) specifies this specifically with regard to the manual lifting, carrying, pulling or pushing of loads at work. It specifies, for example, that manual handling of loads must be avoided or kept to a minimum by using suitable work equipment (§2 LasthandhabV).
In the UK the HSE has outlined its guidelines on human factors and ergonomics in the workplace with its Human Factors Delivery Guide. Find out more here.
How can you improve ergonomics and back health in the workplace?
First of all, the risk factors for musculoskeletal disorders in the workplace must be identified. This is done with the help of a risk assessment.
To identify hazards, you can use findings from occupational health screenings, statutory regulations and technical guidelines, as well as information from the insurance institutions. An inspection of the workplace and the involvement and questioning of employees are also essential sources of information.
It is essential to bear in mind the mere presence of stressful activities does not say anything about their risk potential. To assess the risk of musculoskeletal disorders such as back problems, it is always necessary to determine the level, duration and frequency of physical stress.
Individual factors such as age, gender, experience and physical fitness can also have an influence and should therefore be included in the analysis. Suitable preventive measures should be taken from the findings on the type and level of hazards.
The STOP principle applies when looking at preventive measures:
T Technical measures
O Organisational measures
P Personal measures
The order in which the measures are listed also corresponds to the order of priority of the measures to be taken. First of all, it must be checked whether work steps that are hazardous to the musculoskeletal system can be replaced (substituted) by other work steps that are not hazardous. If stresses cannot be avoided, they must be minimised (minimisation principle). In accordance with the STOP principle, technical measures have priority over organisational or personal measures. There are many technical options on the market for the prevention of musculoskeletal disorders. In the following, we show 4 products that have proven themselves in practice.
3 tried and tested measures for more ergonomics at the workplace
Use technical aids for load handling
Use technical aids for load handling. Aids for internal transport reduce the use of human muscle power to a minimum and prevent back problems. These include transport carts, trolleys, hand carts or transport rollers. Lifting heavy loads is made easier with equipment such as pallet trucks, crane arms or hoists. Important to know: The Load Handling Ordinance (Germany) requires the use of mechanical equipment to counteract hazards caused by manual handling of loads.
Handling hazardous substances - ergonomics and safety are important here!
When handling hazardous substances in drums, gas cylinders or other heavy containers, workers are exposed to physical stress. Manual handling also involves increased risks of accidents. Resulting damage to the container can lead to uncontrolled leaking of hazardous substances. Therefore, only specially designed work equipment should be used for the transport and handling of hazardous substances. DENIOS offers a comprehensive range of special products for the safe intralogistics of hazardous materials:
Ensure effective stress reduction with ergonomic workplace mats
It has been proven that standing for long periods and working on hard surfaces can lead to permanent damage to the back. With ergonomic workplace mats (also: anti-fatigue mats), you benefit from a significant reduction in strain. Ergonomic workplace mats consist of cushioning or resilient materials such as vinyl foam or rubber with a high material thickness and a structured surface (e.g. grooves or studs). In this way, ergonomic workplace mats cushion the impact load during movement and stimulate beneficial micro-movements and stimulation of the muscles during prolonged standing.
The benefit for employees:
Increased standing comfort
Relief for feet, joints and spine
Improved blood circulation
Preventive effect against degenerative joint changes, cramps and circulatory problems
Use work chairs, stools and standing aids for a balanced posture
Another way to avoid the negative effects of constant standing or sitting is to change your posture regularly. This is because permanent and one-sided posture is harmful to the back and musculoskeletal system. A balanced combination of standing, sitting and walking should therefore be aimed for at the workplace. Work chairs and stools should therefore provide employees with ergonomic seating options. The purchase of a standing aid can also provide noticeable relief for standing activities in the workshop or production. A standing aid is significantly higher than a classic work stool and enables the user to "lean" ergonomically at standing workplaces.