Teaching Post-Pandemic Resilience: 14 Ergonomic Tips to Bring Workers Back Safely

Due to physical inactivity in quarantine, workers may not be used to the level of physical activity they previously engaged in while on the job.
By: and | May 15, 2020

Working on an assembly line can be a physically demanding job.

Due to COVID-19 work restrictions, many workers who are used to that kind of environment sit idle as they wait out the pandemic. Employees spent the last few weeks or months either not working at all or working reduced hours.

Before letting them return to the job, leadership must consider the possibility of physical deconditioning and the toll it has on their workers. As employees prepare to restart work, immobility may increase their risk of musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) and this can ultimately reduce productivity and product quality.

Physical Deconditioning

Physical deconditioning is known as changes in the human body due to a reduction in physical activity. It may involve:

Reduced muscle strength. The average human can lose between one percent and three percent of muscle strength per day.

This can result in a noticeable loss in strength after multiple weeks of sedentary behavior.

Reduced cardiovascular fitness. Lack of physical activity can cause the heart to lose strength, making it more difficult to quickly pump blood to working muscle during physical activity.

This results in less oxygen and energy molecules getting to the working muscle, causing the body to fatigue more quickly.

Reduced physical endurance. When there is less oxygen getting to the working muscle and tissue, there can also be lactic acid buildup.

This contributes to early muscle fatigue and muscle soreness following the activity.

Bianca Sfalcin, associate consultant, ergonomics engineer, VelocityEHS | Humantech

Reduced range of motion at the body’s joints due to less elasticity and muscle stiffness.

Weeks of reduced activity may limit one’s ability to extend or bend body segments, which may require workers to adapt and change the way they complete tasks when they return to work, or they risk straining a muscle.

Increased whole-body fatigue. It may take time for employees to retrain their muscles as they get used to the physical demands of their jobs.

Weight gain. As employees switch from daily physical activity to a more sedentary lifestyle, they burn fewer calories per day.

As leadership attempts to get back to meeting production and revenue standards, it is important to investigate ways to reintegrate employees into standard work without increasing musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) risk and without impacting manufacturing production and product quality.

Tips to Help Employers Reduce Physical Stress on Workers When Restarting Work

Here are some ways to reduce physical stress on workers when restarting work:

1. Review workstation inventory. Analyze workstations to ensure all tools, equipment, and supplies are in the correct location and that all equipment is in proper working condition.

2. Reduce non-value-added activity. Review the on-floor operations and identify ways to eliminate movement waste.

This may involve making changes to the workstation layout, organizing the tools and equipment, or determining the most efficient way to complete the task.

Especially as everyone practices social distancing — 6 feet apart — consider ways to mechanically transport products between workstations. This will reduce worker bending and reaching when retrieving products between stations.

3. Limit job rotation. If job rotation is not done correctly, it has the potential to increase workplace injury rate by increasing the number of employees exposed to high-risk jobs. Therefore, it is not an effective ergonomics solution.

In addition, less job rotation will reduce common touch points between workers, which may help reduce the spread of germs and help employees feel safer.

4. Identify the tasks that require the highest forceful exertion. Analyze the jobs to pinpoint where the highest forces are, determine the true root cause of the excessive force, and brainstorm engineering solutions to eliminate or reduce exposure to the excessive force.

Then implement the improvements that are feasible for the time being.

Blake McGowan, director, ergonomics research group, VelocityEHS | Humantech

5. Identify the tasks that require the highest magnitude of awkward postures. Pinpoint where the awkward postures in tasks are, determine the true root cause of the awkward posture, and brainstorm engineering solutions to eliminate or reduce the magnitude of the posture.

Then implement the improvements that are feasible for the time being.

6. Implement engineering solutions to reduce employee exposure to MSD risk factors. If production is slow, it may be the perfect time to make physical changes to the workstation layout, equipment, or process.

Focus on high-impact, low-cost engineering solutions that are quick to implement.

7. Add additional error-proofing stations. Consider adding temporary checkpoint stations to ensure that all work is getting done correctly. This not only helps ensure that product quality is on point, but it also helps to eliminate rework and waste.

Considering these tips can help make employees’ jobs easier as they readjust to the physical demands of their jobs.

Help Employees Prepare to Restart Work

Help your employees prepare their return to the job by encouraging the following:

8. General Ergonomics Awareness Training. Have all employees complete general ergonomics awareness training to gain a full understanding of what ergonomics is, why it is important for everyone, and what is expected of them in relation to ergonomics.

All workers should also know the primary MSD hazards so they can identify and report ergonomics issues at their own workstation.

9. Ergonomics Self-Assessments. Train each employee to complete an ergonomics self-assessment.

Use a qualitative assessment tool to enable employees to assess each task within their day-to-day job.

10. Review Standard Operating Procedures. Instruct each employee to review standard operating procedures (SOP).

Each SOP should be up to date and available to review prior to restarting work. This can help workers recall all steps in the process or prepare for the next model production.

Ultimately, it can help reduce errors and improve product quality.

11. Proactively Communicate Physical Discomfort. Encourage employees to proactively communicate physical discomfort to their supervisor.

Whether it is through weekly discomfort surveys or ergonomics self-assessments, this communication can help identify issues and address them before they progress to an MSD.

12. Take A Break. Encourage employees to take all available breaks throughout the day. Breaks from physical activity allow time for muscle recovery.

13. Limit Overtime Hours. Prevent additional physical stress by limiting overtime hours. Employers should consider having more employees work fewer hours, as opposed to having fewer employees work more hours.

14. Focus on Fitness and Well-Being. Encourage employees to focus on personal fitness and overall well-being during their personal time. Advise them to take daily walks to maintain cardiovascular fitness and try at-home workouts to maintain muscle strength and overall fitness.

Consider these tips to help make employees’ jobs easier as they restart work and get used to the physical demands of their jobs.

Not only can these ideas help prevent or reduce the onset on MSDs, but they can help improve product quality, employee efficiency and employee satisfaction. &

Blake McGowan is the director of research for VelocityEHS | Humantech. He leads the Ergonomics Research group to incorporate the latest technical and scientific data into VelocityEHS | Humantech’s software solutions. Bianca Sfalcin is an associate consultant and ergonomics engineer for VelocityEHS | Humantech. She facilitates the deployment of ergonomics software solutions and conducts on-site workshops across global companies.

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