How to Identify Ergonomic Hazards at Work

What is Ergonomics?

Ergonomics can be defined as the ‘compatibility between a worker, their workstation and their work tasks’.

Ergonomics means addressing the environmental, organizational and human characteristics that have the potential to adversely affect health and safety in the workplace. The overall aim of ergonomics is to ensure that there is complete cohesion between a worker, their job role and their workstation.

For example:

The job – can the nature of the task, workload and/or procedures be changed to match the strengths and limitations of the people involved? Are people able to perform their tasks safely and correctly?  Do people have too much or too little responsibility?

The person – what are people’s skills, attitudes, competencies and risk perceptions like? Can these be improved upon to ensure each person is comfortable and safe within their role? Is the person physically able to carry out their tasks?

The organization – do work patterns, shifts, communications, management and workplace culture have a positive influence over how people work and feel? If not, can they be altered so that they do?

Examples of Ergonomic Hazards

Ergonomic hazards can be found in all types of workplaces, no matter the job role and no matter the environment. Whether employees work at a desk or a workbench, in a shop or in a vehicle, it’s essential that they can carry out their work comfortably and safely.

Ergonomic hazards may be related to:

  • The work tasks.
  • The equipment used at work.
  • Information, instructions and procedures.
  • The physical environment.
  • The social environment.
  • Physical and mental capabilities.
  • Knowledge and experience.

Below are some examples of ergonomic hazards that you may come across.

Display Screen Equipment Ergonomics

It’s essential that people who work regularly with computers, laptops or tablets set-up their individual display screen equipment (DSE) so that it’s comfortable for them to use. To improve the ergonomics of DSE, look out for:

  • Incorrect screen positioning. The top of the screen should be at eye level to prevent straining the neck.
  • Mouse and keyboard positioning. Users should be able to use both without stretching, and with their forearms supported by the desk.
  • Incorrect chair height. Thighs should be parallel with the desk and feet should be flat on the floor.
  • Screen glare. Avoid positioning screens near to windows or direct sources of light that could reflect off the display screen.
  • Poor lighting. Working in an environment with insufficient lighting can cause eye strain.
  • Hard-to-use or complicated software. If people aren’t correctly trained or instructed in how to use the tools available to them then it can cause unnecessary stress.
  • Lack of breaks and changes in activity. Sitting in a static posture for too long can cause aches and pains, so aim to stretch or walk around every hour.

Manual Handling Ergonomics

Manual handling refers to any task that involves lifting, lowering, carrying, pushing, pulling or maneuvering an object, load or person. These tasks require a lot of physical effort so it’s vital that the person doing them is comfortable and capable. To improve the ergonomics of manual handling, consider:

  • The load’s weight. Can the person safely move the load or do they need assistance or a mechanical aid? Can the load be broken down into several smaller loads?
  • Incorrect grip. Is the person holding the load correctly to avoid injury?
  • Uneven loads. If the load is heavier on one side, keep this closest to the body to avoid the load moving in transit.
  • Awkward posture. Does the person understand the correct manual handling procedures? An awkward posture can lead to musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).
  • Repetitive lifting. Continuously repeating the same task can cause aches and pains and lead to MSDs in the long-term.
  • Time pressures and lack of breaks. Are the expectations of the employee reasonable? Do they have time during their task to rest?

Workplace Stress Ergonomics

Stress is something that affects us all, and especially so in the workplace. It’s important that job roles are designed to minimize the amount of stress that they cause workers, as frequent or prolonged stress can lead to both physical and mental health problems. To improve job role ergonomics and reduce workplace stress, think about:

  • Work demands being too high or low. Can employees keep up with what’s expected from them? Do employees have enough to do? Can tasks be shared out better?
  • Little input or control. Are employees able to share their opinions and concerns easily? Can they choose tasks that are best suited to them?
  • Poor support from management. Do managers and supervisors communicate regularly with employees and provide support, encouragement and praise?
  • Conflicting demands. Are workers clear about their tasks and what is expected from them?
  • Poor time management. Do employees understand how to prioritize tasks and can they delegate tasks to others?
  • Excessive overtime. Are employees expected to regularly work late hours?

Ergonomics Risk Assessment

Carrying out a risk assessment is the best way to identify the ergonomic hazards in your workplace. This means walking around the worksite and talking to employees to learn more about how their job tasks and workstations can be improved, and then putting measures in place to resolve the issues.

It’s important to talk to the employees themselves about how to improve ergonomics, as applying ‘one-size-fits-all’ health and safety measures is unlikely to solve all problems. Aim to meet with people on an individual basis and learn about what can be done to make their time at work happier, safer and more comfortable.