Proper Ergonomics Improve Welding Productivity, Protect Welders
By Jack Kester, senior VP, Marsh Risk Consulting and Andy Monk, product manager, Bernard
What is ergonomics? While this term has several definitions, its practical meaning is “to adapt a task and work environment to a human.”
Despite what some think, the importance of ergonomics far surpasses comfort. A workplace environment or task that causes a welding operator to repetitively reach, move, grip or twist in an unnatural way — or even stay in a static posture for an extended time without proper rest — can do much more than become a literal pain in the neck. Over time, it can lead to repetitive stress injuries with life-long impacts that may even prevent the welding operator from working.
People are built with certain limitations, and when the design of work exceeds normal limitations, excessive wear and tear on the body occurs, accelerating damage that can lead to Work-Related Musculoskeletal Disorders (WMSDs) — injury to the muscles, tendons, ligaments, joints, nerves and/or spinal discs.
Although many welding operators may start with a dull pain that they dismiss as “just getting conditioned” or “tweaking something that will go away,” it can become more intense — and more expensive — and difficult to treat as time goes on. For example, early treatment for pain may require only ice, heat or some anti-inflammatories, and it might cost $200. However, waiting months or years to address the problem could result in invasive treatment and cost thousands of dollars. That is especially true with wrist and shoulder injuries that require surgery.
Ergonomics not only protects welding operators from injuries, but it can also improve the productivity and profitability of a welding operation. Stressful postures and motions tend to be inefficient. Lifting boxes from floor level or reaching outward beyond arm’s length, for example, takes extra time. These posture and motions repeated throughout the year by multiple employees can have a significant impact on earnings for the company.
By proactively reducing the risk of injury, companies can improve productivity, while also reducing employee absences and eliminating overtime pay for replacement workers who may not be as efficient or proficient. Eliminating stressful postures and motions can also help reduce employee turnover and training costs for replacing welding operators who quickly decide “this job isn’t for me.”
According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, WMSDs account for 29 percent of all lost workday injuries and for about 34 percent of all workers’ compensation claims — and they cost employers $20 billion each year in workers’ compensation.
Welding-related musculoskeletal disorders
Injuries ranging from mild and short-term to serious and chronic can result when the demands of a task do not naturally align with the capabilities of the welding operator. Most WMSDs develop when repetitive micro-traumas occur to the body over time.
WMSDs include strains or sprains, which can result in pain, decreased productivity, disability, medical treatment, financial stress and even a change in the quality of life for those affected. The most common symptoms among welding operators are shoulder pain, range of motion loss and reduced muscle strength. The most common injuries for welding operators include back and shoulder injuries, wrist injuries (such as tendinitis) and various knee joint disorders.
Today WMSDs are the fastest-growing disorder in the aging workforce because these illnesses have developed over time, before welding operations were as aware of them as they are today. As a result, there is the potential for an increase in claims costs in the coming 10 years as welding operators seek treatment.
The risk factors
There are three primary risk factors that increase the likelihood of developing WMSD injuries:
1) Highly repetitive tasks that keep an operator in a static posture for too long or use the same motion over and over, such as pulling a MIG gun trigger.
2) Tasks that require an operator to apply significant force or pressure, such as pushing, pulling or heavy lifting.
3) Poor or awkward postures, such as bent wrists or necks tilted backward.
In addition, environmental conditions such as extreme temperatures can also contribute to the development of WMSDs. Personal risk factors that increase the likelihood of incurring WMSDs include physical conditioning, pre-existing health problems, gender, age, work techniques and stressful hobbies.
Some common welding postures that are considered awkward and stressful include kneeling, squatting, torso twisting, leaning on a hard surface, holding the arms away from the body or above shoulder height for long periods of time, hunching or bending over, and looking upward too long.
In general, the best postures are those that are as close to neutral as possible — a natural position that the body would rest in if it were not doing anything.
The use of proven ergonomic principles can dramatically improve the way a welding operator performs a task, thereby reducing the exposure to risk factors and simultaneously increasing productivity. A simple work station adjustment or the use of different tools can make a big difference on an operator’s long-term health and wellbeing, as well as on the company’s bottom line.
For example, operators who weld with pistol grip tools, such as a welding gun, and use their finger to apply pressure for an extended length of time can develop “trigger finger.” This problem can be easily resolved by using a welding gun with a locking trigger.
Welding operators should position their work between the waist and shoulders, whenever possible, to ensure they are working in a close to a neutral posture. Achieving this posture may mean using work stools or height-adjustable chairs, as well as lifting tables and rotational clamps or other material-positioning equipment. All these solutions can reduce awkward postures and allow employees to work in more neutral positions.
Welding guns with rear swivels on the power cable can help reduce the stress of repetitive motions. Different combinations of handle angles, neck angles and neck lengths can also keep an operator’s wrists in a neutral position. In some cases, a welding gun with a rotatable neck can help the welding operator more easily reach a joint, with less strain on the body. Manipulators, lighter-weight welding guns, lighter power cables with low stiffness and cable supporting balancers can also be invaluable.
Remember, the working height of a welding operator’s hands should typically be at elbow height or slightly below.
The engineering controls described above are effective because they reduce or eliminate risk factors in the workplace. Administrative control measures, such as job rotation and stretching programs, can also be used to reduce the exposure time for welding operators or at least prepare their bodies for the work-related stress.
The keys to an effective ergonomics program
An effective and sustainable ergonomics process provides a structured approach to reducing risk in the workplace and preventing WMDs over the long-term. It typically includes:
1) A formal ergonomics risk assessment process to identify and prioritize high- risk work.
2) A structured task analysis process to define the causes of the risk factors, leading to the development of practical engineering controls.
3) An action plan developed by management stakeholders to set expectations and allocate resources for ergonomics in the workplace.
4) An ergonomics team trained to implement the ergonomics process and empowered to implement the action plan.
5) A formal process for developing, implementing and validating ergonomics solutions for high-risk tasks.
6) Ergonomics training for management, supervisors, the ergonomics team and other production staff members.
Once an ergonomics solution has been implemented, it is important to provide frequent reinforcement to the welding operators to ensure that the solution is utilized effectively. It can be difficult, initially, for a welding operator to get comfortable with new work practices if the job has been done a specific way for years. Therefore, it is important for welding operators to use any new welding gun and implement new best practices for at least 30 days. At that point, they can provide valid feedback on how well the new equipment or practices work for them. After all, gaining the benefits of proper ergonomics is only possible if they are used and the welding operator also sees the results.
In the end, the goal is to secure the safety of the welding operator, which requires an active commitment on the part of both the individual and management. Gaining the benefit of ergonomics is a team effort — one that ultimately provides a comfortable work environment, leads to a more productive and profitable welding operation, and provides for the long-term health of the welding operator.