It’s a rarely discussed subject, but ergonomics – the study and prevention of work-related musculoskeletal disorders – is a safety risk consideration in everything the Army does, from equipment design to individual Soldier movement while performing everyday tasks.
Ergonomics should be a major part of every leader’s safety and occupational health program, regardless of whether the organization is a field unit with Soldiers scattered across locations or a predominantly civilian organization with employees doing routine maintenance, customer support and administrative work.
“The subject isn’t flashy, and it’s not something many people give a lot of thought to,” observed Command Sgt. Maj. William L. Gardner II, Army Combat Readiness Center CSM. “However, it’s incredibly important in keeping our Soldiers and workforce healthy and ready for not only today, but a long career as well.”
According to John Pentikis, Ph.D., and ergonomist Kelsey McCoskey, both from the Army Public Health Center, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., WMSD risk factors include non-neutral postures, repetition, force, mechanical compression, duration, vibration and temperature extremes.
“Limiting exposure to these hazards reduces potential for worker fatigue, errors and unsafe acts while simultaneously increasing effectiveness and efficiency,” Pentikis said. “This can be achieved by designing and modifying work environments through engineering and administrative controls. It’s really about fitting the workstation to the worker.”
Not doing so is costly. In 2018, 53 percent of Soldiers reported a new musculoskeletal injury with 71 percent of those cases resulting from cumulative, micro-traumatic overuse, McCoskey said. The year prior, material handling was the No. 1 cause of civilian injury claims for DA Civilians, outpacing slips, trips and falls and motor vehicle accidents. Lower back disorders accounted for nearly half those cases.
“Even those who are physically fit may face undue risk of musculoskeletal discomfort and injury in physically demanding jobs,” she further observed.
The single-most important mitigation measure leaders can take to help prevent these all-too-common disorders is relatively simple: commit to and maintain a functioning ergonomics program at all levels of management.
“It should be evident that safety, health and readiness are as important as production,” Pentikis said. “The easiest way to do this is to be involved in how people are working. Don’t assume just because the job is being done that it’s being done without harm.”
As a first step, leaders can engage their local safety office or unit safety professional for advice and input on establishing an ergonomics program. They also may contact the APHC via its website, phc.amedd.army.mil, to request an ergonomics consultation or assessment.
“An effective program means working safer and smarter, and the science of ergonomics is applicable both in garrison and deployed environments,” Pentikis said. “Whether you sit at a desk all day, provide medical care, pack parachutes or move inventory, ergonomic interventions can be a benefit.”
Finally, during this era of increased telework due to COVID-19, the APHC wants the Army to know it “has everyone’s backs … and necks … and wrists in mind.” Pentikis and McCoskey offered the following home office ergonomics tips:
• Couches, beds and easy chairs promote non-neutral postures, and extended use could result in musculoskeletal discomfort.
• Use a good, supportive chair or sit on a pillow to act as both a seat cushion and booster for higher work surfaces such as kitchen tables, which are too high for computer work. Rolled towels also may be used for low back support.
• Remember the 90/90/90 rule: hips, knees and elbows at 90 degrees, and use a foot support to keep your feet from dangling.
• Use government-approved monitors, keyboards and mice, if available, rather than relying solely on a laptop.
• Stand up on conference calls to get your blood flowing.
• Take micro-breaks throughout the workday to stand up, walk around and change position. Follow the 20-20-20 guideline: every 20 minutes, look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds.
For more information on workplace safety, visit the USACRC website at safety.army.mil.