Doing it right, doing it well

WORKER safety and health doesn’t stop with self-contained, self-rescue caches, proximity protection and welding protection, vital as they all are. Musculoskeletal disorders, or MSD, can injure a miner not just once, but over and over again throughout their work life.
Doing it right, doing it well Doing it right, doing it well Doing it right, doing it well Doing it right, doing it well Doing it right, doing it well

The Jim Bridger mine in Rock Springs, Wyoming, set up an erganomics committee.

Donna Schmidt

Published in the December 2006 American Longwall Magazine

Investigation of the risks that are associated with MSD is the focus of research done by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) team led by MSD prevention team leader Lisa Steiner, based at the Pittsburgh Research Laboratory (PRL).

Cumulative injuries to the musculoskeletal system occur over time with repeated exposure to awkward postures, excessive force, whole body vibration, repetitive motion or some combination of these risk factors.

They can go unnoticed due to their slow progression or have been attributed to being “part of the job” or “just getting old”. These injuries can be prevented and their symptoms reduced through employee awareness of ergonomics principles and changes to the workplace.

Ergonomics processes have been associated mostly with manufacturing and office settings where working conditions tend to be rather predictable and repetitive. However, the principles can also be adapted to a setting such as mining where working conditions frequently change and workers are periodically exposed to acute weather conditions and extreme working postures, according to Steiner and her team.

NIOSH’s MSD prevention team has focused their recent efforts on the education of the mining workforce and companies and the promotion of the benefits of integrating an ergonomics process. These injuries, which mainly affect the neck, back, shoulders, knee and hands, are costly both to the health of the workforce and the profits of the companies.

While Steiner noted that the implementation of a formal process to address MSD injuries proactively in the mining industry was not all that common, there are statistics to show that 40% of work-related injuries are musculoskeletal in nature.

In fact, due to the nature of musculoskeletal injuries themselves, repeat injuries are common (up to 70% recurrence rate for back injuries) and can sometimes lead to permanent, irreversible disabilities.

To compound the issues with cumulative injuries is the existing aging workforce concerns. Statistics show that when cumulative injuries (musculoskeletal) happen to older workers (54 years of age and above), it takes up to three times longer for them to recover than younger workers, Steiner said.

The physical nature of mining work over years and years of experience can cause the body to wear down. For these reasons it is imperative that the mining industry take seriously the effects of these injuries, recognize the root causes of the injuries and abate these causes before workers are symptomatic. A proactive approach that targets risk factors is the only way to reduce these costly injuries.

With a mission to “identify, evaluate and correct working conditions that need[ed] ergonomic improvement [and] find the fit between the workers and the workplace” so that workers could enjoy life more fully on and off the clock, and armed with their process integration plans, Steiner said the team found a cooperative, forward-thinking minesite to begin the project.

The operator of the Jim Bridger mine in Rock Springs, Wyoming, was anxious to implement a process to help protect its workers.

Bridger employees and their newly commissioned ergonomics committee were provided with ergonomics principles training and risk factor identification practice. They were given the responsibility to identify risk factors and unsafe practices in their own jobs. To document what they saw, each person was issued a risk factor report card to complete for that job.

In some cases, if the action required immediate attention by either the employee or the ergonomics committee and sufficient information was available on that specific potential for injury, the concern was brought to the committee’s attention and the employee and the committee worked together to mediate the root cause.

If the action was one that needed more research and/or could not be immediately resolved, an ergonomics committee member along with the employees involved would take on the report to evaluate viable solutions and implement the best solution.

Steiner and her team noted that, as with all individuals in every line of work, refreshing one’s memory and knowledge is significantly important to doing the most effective job. For this reason, NIOSH’s research team arranged for refresher awareness training for all Bridger employees. The team also remained in consistent communication with the ergonomics committee and with the workers on the progress of the process.

A total of 55 concerns were received during the first year of the process implementation at Bridger, and improvements were completed for 22 of those. While some required an expense to correct, such as new equipment, others required little to no funds to fix, like work practice modification or equipment maintenance.

No one intervention cost more than $3000, she said. “Making workplace changes certainly does not have to be expensive but to ensure the right changes are made, knowledge of the risk factors and the tasks are essential.”

She continued: “Employees who are educated with ergonomics principles and know their jobs the best will make the most acceptable changes.” Also critical to the process is to keep the employees aware of the changes being made and that the issues brought to the ergonomics team are being addressed systematically.

According to the NIOSH team, one important lesson learned in the process was that every operation will do things differently depending on the culture and their approach to safety, and that “there is no single ‘right’ method that will work for all companies when completing a process”.

This fact is important to note for this project, which the MSD prevention team is using to implement the process at two other large minesites and one smaller operation.

Showing the mining industry that the process can be implemented, the successes tracked, and the injuries reduced will encourage more mines to consider integrating ergonomics into their safety approach, Steiner noted.

The Bridger project, she said, was considered successful in large part because of a strong, healthy level of employee participation; in fact, more than 20 job improvements were implemented due to the active reporting and investigation done by all of the mine’s workers.

The MSD prevention team is actively working to here to read on.

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