Ergonomic assessment is a physical therapist's or other specialist's evaluation of a workplace and its furnishings, tools, and tasks in relation to the physical abilities of the worker. It is also known as work activities evaluation and treatment.
The professional evaluation is used to identify and report any risk factors that the worker may encounter while employed. By identifying those risks for injury and physical stress, the evaluator provides recommendations for modified design and practice. The ergonomic assessment and its implementation can help make the work environment safer and more physically efficient. It will also help reduce injuries and related expenses while improving the well-being, productivity, and morale of employees. A job analysis (a written description of tasks according to their physical functions and requirements) may be provided, to match the capabilities of the worker to the job's physical requirements. Ergonomic assessment reports and subsequent modifications help the employer to meet insurance company, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), or other organizational standards. The physical therapist may be called in to treat an injured worker or make general preventative recommendations. The therapist helps the worker return to work more quickly and safely by advising revisions in the work tasks and environment. The employer receives advice in how to accommodate the abilities of a disabled or recently injured employee in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements.
Ergonomic assessments are used to prevent further or recurring injuries. If a worker returns to work while still in recovery or returns to the same dangerous environment, the injury is liable to happen again, perhaps with a worse outcome.
Ergonomic assessment is provided to an employer or employee to identify risk factors in the workplace; provide recommendations of ways to reduce them; and to prevent or treat injuries and accommodate disabilities. The evaluation helps employees perform their jobs in a safe, healthy, and efficient manner, spending less time off due to work-related disorders. The term ergonomics is derived from the Greek roots erg, meaning work and nomos, meaning natural laws. OSHA defines ergonomics as "the science of fitting the jobs to the people who work in them," stating that "work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) result when there is a mismatch between the physical capacity of workers and the physical demands of their jobs." Some job-related MSDs include carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis, and back injuries.
Many industries and work environments expose workers to hazardous conditions and constant physical stress resulting in accident, injury, and chronic conditions such as work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs), cumulative trauma disorders (CTDs), and repetitive motion injuries (RMIs). Some high-risk groups are assembly line workers, manufacturing employees, health care workers, and office workers. Jobs requiring continual heavy lifting or constant repetition of the same motion can be especially stressful. Office work—especially that involving constant computer use—can lead to various physical problems. These include eye strain from artificial lighting and computer screens; back problems related to incorrect posture and chairs or work stations; and hand, wrist, or arm injuries due to excessive or incorrect keyboard use.
Once these risks are identified, the recommendations may be in the form of a work risk analysis report that includes a biomechanical description of the job, a description of observed risks, and steps to correct them.
Ergonomic assessment and intervention includes the "Five E's" of correction and injury prevention:
- Ergonomic-engineering: Redesigning the job or workspace to reduce stress. For example, the height or angle of a counter, chair or keyboard may be adjusted.
- Exposure reduction: Reducing the amount of time workers are exposed to unavoidable stress by rotating tasks; increasing the variety of tasks performed; and how they are performed and changing physical positions and movements.
- Exercise: Stretching the muscles relieves stress and helps to prevent injury. This proves especially important when certain physically stressful tasks must be repeatedly performed.
- Enforcement of preventative procedures or policies: Teaching procedures such as proper lifting techniques, are necessary if they are to benefit the employees.
- Education: Knowing the proper procedures and the physical reasons for use.
A physical therapist may either be employed by a company to treat workers on-site or act as a consultant with various companies. If the treatment is in response to an employee injury, the employer's insurance company generally pays for the physical therapist's services. If the therapist is providing general injury prevention consultation the employer usually pays for the service, which is cost-effective because it reduces injury-related expenses. Physical therapists are by the nature of their training well educated in anatomy, posture, body mechanics, and ergonomics, but the physical therapist who provides ergonomic assessment and treatment in the workplace may also have additional training or education in ergonomics and occupational health. Physical therapists are generally used more outside the United States, but would prove beneficial given their expertise in the human body and its activities.
After the ergonomic assessment for each employee's job assignment and work station has been conducted and the employees have been instructed in proper work place ergonomics and safety, beneficial results depend on application. The employer needs to actually apply recommendations for changes in the work station or job description. Employees also have to continue to put the new techniques they have learned into practice.
Whle complications resulting from the ergonomic assessment itself are not likely, there may possibly be complications resulting from an injured employee's early return to work, even with a modified job description. If the resumed or modified activity causes irritation or risk of reinjury, the employee may need to cease the resumed activities and return to the physical therapist or physician for further treatment. Care should be taken to screen employees for any conditions contraindicating exercise before preventative stretches or other new physical activities are recommended.
The desired outcomes of ergonomic assessment and intervention are quicker return to work by injured employees, a safer and more efficient work environment, prevention of future injuries, and increased understanding of safe work and postural practices. By reducing injuries, Workers' Compensation claims, and employee absenteeism, adjustments made to the work environment and related activities can lead to reductions in cost to the employer.
Health care team roles
A company doctor, Workers' Compensation doctor, or other physician may refer the patient to a physical therapist for treatment and workplace ergonomic evaluation. The employer also has the option of directly requesting the physical therapist's services. Educational specialists and others with special training in ergonomics and occupational health may be involved in addition to or in place of the physical therapist. Often the physical therapist will be the sole consultant for the employer and employees.
ADA— Americans with Disabilities Act.
Biomechanics— The study of biological and muscular activity.
CTD— Cumulative trauma disorder.
Ergonomics— Arranging and studying things people use to derive efficient and safe conditions that produce the best results.
OSHA— Occupational Health and Safety Administration.
RMI— Repetitive motion injury.
WMSD— Work-related musculoskeletal disorders.
American Physical Therapy Association (APTA). 1111 North Fairfax Street. Alexandria, VA 22314. (703) 684-2782. 〈http://www.apta.org〉.
Center for Industrial Ergonomics. Lutz Hall, Room 445, University of Louisville, Louisville, KY 40292. (502) 852-7173. 〈http://www.louisville.edu/speed/ergonomics〉.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Health and Safety Administration, Office of Public Affairs, Room N3647. Washington, DC 20210. (202) 693-1999. 〈http://www.osha.gov〉.
Ergonomics.org. 2001. 〈http://ergonomics.org〉.
Smart Care PT. 2001. 〈http://www.smartcarept.com〉.
"Workplace Assessment & Management." Australian Physiotherapy Association (APA). 〈http://www.physiotherapy.asn.au〉.
World Medicus Page. 2001. 〈http://www.worldmedicus.com〉.