HAZARDS: How to Identify & Assess Ergonomics-Related Hazards

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Musculoskeletal injuries or disorders (MSIs and MSDs respectively), which include repetitive strain and repetitive motion injuries and cumulative trauma disorders, are one of the leading causing of lost work time in many jurisdictions. These injuries occur when bones, joints, ligaments, tendons, muscles and other soft tissues are being injured, usually over time. What causes MSIs? Ergonomics-related hazards, such as poorly designed equipment, tools, procedures and work stations. And even though MSIs are less dramatic than, say, an amputation or crushing injury, they can seriously impact workers’ lives, lead to OHS violations and hurt companies’ bottom lines. We’ll tell you how to identify and assess ergonomics-related hazards so you can take appropriate steps to protect workers from them.

MODEL SYMPTOM SURVEY: Download a Model Worker MSI Symptoms Survey that you can use to gather information on possible ergonomics-related hazards in your workplace.

HOW TO COMPLY

There’s a chart at the end of this article spelling out the ergonomics requirements in each jurisdiction. Bottom line: Every jurisdiction, either directly or indirectly, requires employers to protect workers from ergonomics-related hazards. The jurisdictions’ approaches and requirements vary slightly. So you should consult the specific requirements in your jurisdiction’s OHS laws. But in general, to comply with all of these requirements, you must first identify and assess ergonomics-related hazards in order to protect workers from them.

Identifying Possible Ergonomics-Related Hazards

First, employers should evaluate the workplace for factors that could expose workers to ergonomics–related hazards.

Who? As safety coordinator, you should probably be involved in this process. But you shouldn’t do it alone. In fact, some jurisdictions specifically require employers to consult other parties, including:

  • The JHSC or health and safety representative;
  • Any workers who’ve shown signs or symptoms of MSIs; and/or
  • A sampling of workers who do the work or use the equipment being assessed.

In addition, some OHS laws require the risk identification to be conducted by someone who’s knowledgeable of work procedures and the associated MSI risk factors, such as someone who’s had specialized training on ergonomics or an ergonomist.

When? If you’ve never evaluated your workplace for ergonomics-related hazards, do the whole workplace now. If you’ve done an evaluation before, a new evaluation should be done when:

  • A worker gets injured or reports symptoms of an MSI;
  • A new piece of equipment, procedure or work station is added to the workplace; and
  • An existing piece of equipment, procedure or work station is modified.

In addition, you should regularly re-evaluate the workplace for ergonomics-related hazards to ensure that your ergonomics program is effective.

How? To identify possible ergonomics-related hazards, employers should do the following:

  • Review injury records, including first aid reports, workers’ comp claims, incident reports, workers’ complaints and JHSC meeting minutes, to identify patterns of injuries (or potential injuries), which will help you spot the jobs, equipment and workstations that may expose workers to MSIs;
  • Observe workers performing their duties to determine if there are any risk factors present; and
  • Prioritize the jobs and equipment for assessment by ranking them from lowest to highest level of risk so you can focus your assessment efforts on the most hazardous jobs and equipment.

Another way to get information on potential ergonomics-related hazards is by using a symptoms survey of workers to measure the extent of symptoms of MSIs in each area of the workplace and determine which jobs are causing workers pain and/or discomfort. The survey also measures worker awareness of ergonomics-related disorders and gives workers a way to report the location, frequency and duration of any discomfort they experience.

MODEL SYMPTOM SURVEY: Download a Model Worker MSI Symptoms Survey that you can use to gather information on possible ergonomics-related hazards in your workplace.

What? What should employers look for when trying to identify possible ergonomics-related hazards? When reviewing the injury records and survey results, look for MSIs that could be caused by ergonomics-related hazards, such as bursitis, lower back pain or tendonitis. When observing workers at work, look for some of the risk factors spelled out in BC’s OHS regulations, such as:

Physical demands of work activities, including:

  • force required;
  • repetition;
  • duration;
  • vibration;
  • work postures; and
  • local contact stresses;

Aspects of the layout and condition of the workplace or workstation, including:

  • working reaches and heights
  • seating; and
  • floor surfaces;

Characteristics of objects handled, including:

  • size and shape;
  • load condition and weight distribution; and
  • container, tool and equipment handles;

Environmental conditions, including temperature; and

Characteristics of the organization of work, such as:

  • work-recovery cycles;
  • task variability; and
  • work rate.

Insider Says: There are numerous tools that can help you identify ergonomics-related hazards in your workplace, including an Ergonomic Risk Factor Checklist, Manual Handling Checklist, Form for Investigating Neck, Shoulder and Upper Back Injuries, Form for Investigating Elbow, Forearm and Hand Injuries and Form for Investigating Injuries to the Hips, Knees and Feet.

Assessing Identified Hazards

Once you’ve identified potential ergonomics-related hazards, you need to assess their risk. The purpose of the assessment is to determine whether any of the identified hazards are of a sufficient magnitude to cause concern and thus require appropriate steps to eliminate or minimize workers’ risk of exposure to them. The same people involved in the identification process should also be involved in the assessment.

The three critical parameters that must be considered in the assessment of exposure to an ergonomics-related hazard are:

  • Intensity;
  • Duration; and
  • Frequency.

There are many ways to conduct this hazard assessment, including:

  • Videotaping or taking still photographs of workers performing their tasks, their work postures, workstation layout, etc.;
  • Measuring workstations, the size of handles, tool vibration, etc.;
  • Weighing tools;
  • Determining the characteristics of work surfaces, such as slip resistance;
  • Measuring exposures to extreme temperatures, vibration, noise and lighting;
  • Making biomechanical calculations, such as the force required to accomplish a task or the pressure put on a spinal disk;
  • Using task analysis techniques, such as the NIOSH lifting equation, SNOOK push/pull tables, etc.; and
  • Using postural analysis techniques, such as RULA.

Insider Says: There’s a RULA Employee Assessment Worksheet that you can use to determine whether workers are at risk of developing an MSI in their trunk, neck or upper limbs.

The results of your assessment will help you prioritize which hazards to address and in which order based on how effectively you can address the problems. You can do so by looking at:

  • The severity of the hazard;
  • The complexity of its causes;
  • Potential costs of changing the workstation, equipment, procedures, etc.; and
  • Availability of technology to address causes.

Download a chart below listing common MSI risk factors and some options for controlling them. For example, you may be able to eliminate or, if that’s not practical, minimize the risk of workers’ exposure to ergonomics-related hazards by:

  • Raising a workstation to a more comfortable height for a worker;
  • Repositioning a workstation so a worker doesn’t have to reach for materials or tools;
  • Letting workers who perform a repetitive task take more frequent breaks; or
  • Switching to tools that are ergonomically designed to fit better in workers’ hands, are lighter and require less force to use.

BOTTOM LINE

Taking such steps to make your workplace more ergonomically sound can not only protect your workers from unnecessary and avoidable injuries and make your workplace more efficient but also protect your company from OHS violations and other liability and save it money.

WHAT THE LAW SAYS

All Canadian jurisdictions require employers to identify and protect workers from ergonomics-related hazards in the workplace using one of two approaches:

The 7 Direct Approach Jurisdictions

Seven provinces—Fed, AB, BC, MB, NL, QC and SK—specifically address ergonomics-related  hazards and the prevention of MSIs in their OHS regulations. Although the substance of these requirements varies among these jurisdictions, they generally require employers to:

  • Conduct a workplace risk assessment to identify possible ergonomics-related hazards;
  • Make changes where appropriate to eliminate or reduce the risk of the identified hazards; and
  • Educate and train workers on ergonomics, including the signs and symptoms of various types of MSIs.

Insider Says: Although Yukon’s OHS regulations don’t specifically address MSIs, Sec. 11 of the Occupational Health Regulations requires employers to let workers sit while working if they can do so without detriment to their work and to provide and maintain appropriate seating and, when needed, footrests.

The 7 Indirect Approach Jurisdictions

The other seven jurisdictions—ON, PE, NB, NS, NT, NU and YK—don’t directly require employers to protect workers from ergonomics-related hazards—but they do indirectly impose such a requirement via the “General Duty” clause, that is, the part of the OHS statute that requires employers to take every reasonable precaution to provide a safe and healthy workplace and protect  workers against known hazards.

How do we know that this general duty includes an obligation to protect workers from ergonomics-related hazards? Some jurisdictions have said as much on the websites of the agencies responsible for enforcing the OHS laws or in guides for employers on such hazards and how to prevent workers from developing MSIs. These resources generally say that ergonomics-related hazards must be treated the same as any other workplace hazard. Examples:

  • Nova Scotia’s government ergonomics Web site says that the general duty clause of its OHS Act requires employers to take every reasonable precaution to protect workers and that “although not named specifically, this can include ergonomic issues”;
  • The MSD Prevention Guideline for Ontario says that “controlling MSD hazards…is the law”; and
  • PE’s Workers’ Compensation Board provides numerous resources on MSIs and protecting workers from them.

The three territories (NT, NU and YK) haven’t, to the Insider’s knowledge, stated or implied that they consider employers under a legal duty to address ergonomics-related in the workplace. However, it’s likely that they’ll follow the same approach as the provinces.

KNOW THE LAWS OF YOUR PROVINCE

ERGONOMICS REQUIREMENTS

Here’s what the OHS laws in each jurisdiction says about ergonomics hazards:

RELEVANT LAWS
FED Employers must:

1) ensure that the machinery, equipment and tools used by workers in the course of their employment meet prescribed health, safety and ergonomic standards [Code, Sec. 125(1)(t)];

2) ensure that the work place, work spaces and procedures meet prescribed ergonomic standards [Code, Sec. 125(1)(u)];

3) develop, implement and monitor a program for the prevention of hazards, including ergonomics-related hazards [Regs., Sec. 19.1(1)];

4) ensure, when implementing the prevention program, that ergonomics-related hazards are identified, assessed and eliminated or reduced, as required by Sec. 19.5(1), as much as is reasonably possible and that any person assigned to identify and assess ergonomics-related hazards has the necessary instruction and training [Regs., Sec. 19.2(2)];

5) develop a hazard identification and assessment methodology, including an identification and assessment methodology for ergonomics-related hazards, taking into account designated documents and information [Regs., Sec. 19.3(1)];

6) identify and assess ergonomics-related hazards, taking into account all ergonomics-related factors such as:

a) the physical demands of the work activities, work environment, work procedures, organization of the work and circumstances in which the work activities are performed; and

b) the characteristics of materials, goods, persons, animals, things and work spaces and the features of tools and equipment [Regs., Sec. 19.4(a.1);

7) take steps to implement preventive measures to address assessed ergonomics-related hazards, including steps to address such hazards that are identified when planning implementation of change to the work environment or to work duties, equipment, practices or processes [Regs., Sec. 19.5];

8) ensure that any person assigned to implement ergonomics-related prevention measures has the necessary instruction and training [Regs., Sec. 19.5(5)];

9) provide health and safety education, including education relating to ergonomics, to workers [Regs., Sec. 19.6(1)]; and

10) evaluate the effectiveness of the hazard prevention program, including its ergonomics-related components, and, if necessary, revise it [Regs., Sec. 19.7(1)]

Canada Labour Code; OHS Regulations
AB 1) If a hazard assessment determines that there’s a potential for musculoskeletal injury (MSI), the employer must ensure that all reasonably practicable measures are used to eliminate or reduce that potential [Sec. 210(3)];

2) If a worker reports to the employer what he believes is work related symptoms of an MSI, the employer must promptly:

a) review the worker’s activities and those of other workers doing similar tasks to identify work‐related causes of the symptoms, if any; and

b) take corrective measures to avoid further injuries if the causes of the

symptoms are work related [Sec. 211]; and

3) Employer must ensure that a worker who may be exposed to the possibility of an MSI is trained in specific measures to eliminate or reduce that possibility, including:

a) identification of factors that could lead to an MSI;

b) the early signs and symptoms of an MSI and their potential health effects; and

c) preventive measures including, where applicable, the use of altered work procedures, mechanical aids and PPE [Sec. 211.1].

OHS Code 2009
BC Employers must:

1) identify factors in the workplace that may expose workers to a risk of musculoskeletal injury (MSI) [Sec. 4.47];

2) when factors that may expose workers to a risk of MSI have been identified, ensure that this risk is assessed, considering the factors spelled out in Sec. 4.49 [Sec. 4.48];

3) eliminate or, if that’s not practicable, minimize the risk of MSI to workers, only using PPE when use of engineering or administrative controls isn’t practicable. And employers must, without delay, implement interim control measures when the introduction of permanent control measures will be delayed [Sec. 4.50];

4) ensure that workers who may be exposed to a risk of MSI are educated in risk identification related to the work, including the recognition of early signs and symptoms of MSIs and their potential health effects and that workers assigned to work which requires specific measures to control the risk of MSI are trained in the use of those measures, including, where applicable, work procedures, mechanical aids and PPE [Sec. 4.51];

5) monitor the effectiveness of the measures taken to comply with these requirements and ensure they’re reviewed at least annually and any identified deficiencies are corrected without undue delay [Sec. 4.52];

6) consult with the JHSC or the worker health and safety representative, as applicable, with respect to the following when required:

a) risk identification, assessment and control;

b) the content and provision of worker education and training; and

c) the evaluation of the compliance measures taken [Sec. 4.53(1)]; and

7) when performing a risk assessment, consult with:

a) workers with signs or symptoms of MSI; and

b) a representative sample of the workers who are required to carry out the work being assessed [Sec. 4.53(2)].

OHS Reg.
MB Employers must:

1) when they’re aware, ought reasonably to have been aware or have been advised that a work activity creates a risk of musculoskeletal injury (MSI), ensure that the risk is assessed and, based on the assessment, implement control measures to eliminate or reduce, so far as is reasonably practicable, the risk of

MSI to workers [Sec. 8.1(1)];

2) monitor the effectiveness of any control measures implemented to address the risk of MSIs [Sec. 8.1(3)(a)];

3) where monitoring identifies that a risk of MSI isn’t being or hasn’t been eliminated or reduced, implement further control measures, where it’s reasonably practicable to do so [Sec. 8.1(3)(b)]; and

4) ensure that every worker who may be exposed to a risk of MSI:

a) is informed of this risk and of the signs and common symptoms of any MSI associated with the worker’s work; and

b) receives instruction and training respecting any MSI control measures implemented by the employer [Sec. 8.2].

Workplace Safety and Health Reg.
NB OHS law doesn’t specifically address ergonomics-related hazards.
NL Employers must:

1) recognize factors in the workplace that may expose workers to a risk of musculoskeletal injury (MSI) and evaluate the risk to workers presented by these factors [Sec. 50(2)];

2) eliminate, or where elimination isn’t practicable, minimize the risk of MSI to workers through the implementation of control measures, only using PPE when use of engineering or administrative controls isn’t practicable. And employers must, without delay, implement interim control measures when the introduction of permanent control measures is delayed [Sec. 51];

3) ensure that workers who are or may be exposed to a risk of MSI are:

a) educated in risk identification related to work, including the recognition of early signs and symptoms of MSI and its potential health effects; and

b) trained in the use of specific control measures, including, where applicable, work procedures, mechanical aids and PPE [Sec. 52];

4) monitor the effectiveness of the measures taken to comply with these requirements and where monitoring identifies that a risk of MSI isn’t being or hasn’t been eliminated or reduced, implement further control measures, where  reasonably practicable [Sec. 53]; and

5) consult with the JHSC, worker health and safety representative or workplace health and safety designate, as applicable and when performing a risk assessment, consult with:

a) workers with signs or symptoms of MSI; and

b) a representative sample of the workers who are required to carry out the work being assessed [Sec. 54].

OHS Regs.
NT/

NU

OHS law doesn’t specifically address ergonomics-related hazards.
NS OHS law doesn’t specifically address ergonomics-related hazards.
ON OHS law doesn’t specifically address ergonomics-related hazards.
PE OHS law doesn’t specifically address ergonomics-related hazards.
QC 1) Employers must instruct workers assigned to the handling of loads or persons in the proper manner of performing their work safely. And when the manual moving of loads or persons compromises the worker’s safety, mechanical devices must be put at his disposal [Sec. 166];

2) A worker must have the necessary equipment allowing him to reach the top of piles of material safely, such as step ladders, ladders, pinch grips or any other equipment designed for such purpose [Sec. 167];

3) The height of workbenches and the position of chairs must be adapted to the work and the worker to ensure workers a correct posture and to reduce their fatigue [Sec. 168];

4) Tools, handles and materials must be located in positions that facilitate work and reduce strain [Sec. 169]; and

5) Workers must have chairs or benches at their disposal when the nature of their work so permits [Sec. 170].

Reg. respecting occupational health & safety
SK Employers or contractors must:

1) in consultation with the JHSC, regularly review the workplace activities that may cause or aggravate musculoskeletal injuries (MSIs) [Sec. 81(2)];

2) when a risk of MSI is identified:

a) inform each worker who may be at risk of developing an MSI of that risk and of the signs and common symptoms of any MSI associated with that worker’s work; and

b) provide effective protection for each worker who may be at risk, which

may include any of the following:

i) providing equipment that’s designed, constructed, positioned and maintained to reduce the harmful effects of an activity;

ii) implementing appropriate work practices and procedures to reduce the harmful effects of an activity; and

iii) implementing work schedules that incorporate rest and recovery periods, changes in workload or other arrangements for alternating work to reduce the harmful effects of an activity [Sec. 81(3)];

3) ensure that workers who may be at risk of developing MSIs are instructed in the safe performance of their work, including the use of appropriate work practices and procedures, equipment and PPE [Sec. 81(4)]; and

4) when a worker has symptoms of MSI:

a) advise the worker to consult a physician or a health care professional who’s registered or licensed pursuant to an Act to practise any of the healing arts; and

b) promptly review the activities of that worker and of other workers doing

similar tasks to identify any cause of the symptoms and to take corrective

measures to avoid further injuries [Sec. 81(5)].

OHS Regs.
YT OHS law doesn’t specifically address ergonomics-related hazards.