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A Worker’s Guide to Workplace Ergonomics

In a warehouse, a woman facing the camera wears a navy shirt and places a box on a nearly full metal shelf.

Working in warehousing, construction, manufacturing, or maintenance can be hard on the body. It can mean being on your feet most of the day, lifting heavy objects or putting your body in odd angles. These activities can lead to injuries and hinder performance.

Ergonomics is the study of how working conditions are modified to make employees safer and more productive. Workplace ergonomics starts with the employer’s responsibility to provide a workflow, environment and equipment that prevents or reduces labor-associated aches and pains. But there are steps workers can take to ensure their working conditions aren’t contributing to a musculoskeletal disorder or injury.

We spoke with Regional Safety Manager Shannon Jones who has over 12 years of experience as an athletic trainer and over seven years of experience in occupational health. He offered a few tips on how employees can approach workplace ergonomics in a way that ensures their environment and equipment are safe.

Get specific job details

Before you accept a job, it’s important to know as much about the physical demands of the job as possible. When job searching, review the job description for any physical requirements that are red flags. Know your abilities and physical limitations.

“It’s important to ask questions and be honest with yourself. Will you be standing up, kneeling down, or lifting things from the floor above your head? Are you capable of doing that? If not, then it may not be the opportunity for you,” says Jones.

If you get an interview, don’t be shy about asking specific questions about the equipment or procedures the company utilizes. Do they use standard tools or do they provided tools designed for their working conditions? Will you be standing in the same spot all day, or do they rotate workers so you aren’t repeating the same movements the entire shift? These details aren’t always on the job description and showing interest may help you stand out among the other candidates.

Working with a recruiter can also provide you with more details about a job’s physical requirements and a company’s attention to worker safety. Quality recruiters will avoid connecting you to jobs that are going to be a bad fit. They'll also often have information not provided on the job description that can help you make a better decision about where you’ll be working.

Monitor your body for work-related injuries

Once you’re hired, be aware of any work-related pain or discomfort that develops. Even companies with top-notch workplace ergonomics practices can still have issues that haven’t been addressed. Jones recommends noting any routine discomfort you’re experiencing. Sore muscles are one sign, but there are other indicators to be aware of.

“Take stock of how you’re feeling in the morning or in the afternoon. Does the issue get better with movement? Then it may be more of an arthritis condition. Or is it getting worse as you do more? That is usually the sign of a more musculoskeletal issue because fatigue and inflammation are setting in,” says Jones.

Record and report any “acute incidents” or specific actions that resulted in pain. If you’re taking a box off a shelf when you hear a pop in your shoulder and you begin experiencing discomfort, report it to your supervisor or floor manager.

Jones also recommends workers take actions to help prevent injuries. Pre- or post-work stretching can help ease sore muscles. Proper diet and exercise can also help prevent work-related injuries from slowing you down. If you’re going to be working on your feet all day, make sure you have suitable footwear that provides support and meets the safety guidelines of your workplace.

“If you're doing a standing job. If your feet start to get sore early on or you're noticing an increase in soreness, your footwear is probably worn out. Even though replacing your shoes and boots may be expensive — sore feet, knees and back pain are going to cost you more money in the long term than replacing shoes ever did,” says Jones.

Know how to report issues

Every company should have an incident or injury reporting procedure. The employer usually covers the process during onboarding or training. Reminders are often posted in breakrooms or other areas where workers are most likely to see it.

If there isn’t an established procedure and you need to report an issue, contact your supervisor or floor manager. If they aren’t available, you can speak with your coworkers to learn how to issue a report. Contractors can also work with their recruiter to communicate non-emergency health and safety issues to the employer.

“If you’re an Aerotek contractor, you have a dedicated phone line for reporting injuries. Even if it’s a small injury, still make sure that you're reporting it to your recruiter or to a supervisor so they are aware of the incident,” says Jones.

Be sure to report “near misses” or “almost hits”. Even when no one gets hurt, it’s important to let your employer know about the incident. Repeated “almost hits” may be indicative of an underlying problem in the workflow or environment.

Reporting faulty or aging equipment is also advisable. Let your supervisor know about any tools that may need to be replaced, especially if your current device is hindering your performance.

Workplace ergonomics isn’t just the responsibility of your employer. Everyone plays a role in making their work environment as safe as possible. You can use ergonomics to ensure your safety by reviewing the job description, noting any work-related injuries and knowing how to report safety issues.

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