May 2019 Newsletter:

Ergonomic Injury Detective: Uncovering Signs of Ergonomic Concerns

Photo by | Pexels|Photo by | Pexels

In health and safety, injury investigations can be relatively straightforward since we have direct answers to some of the key investigation questions such as �when�, �where�, and �what�. For instance, when a worker trips and falls over a loose cable and is injured, the parameters surrounding the incident are well established. Addressing the loose cable, and therefore the root cause of the accident, would eliminate the likelihood of this injury from occurring again. However, ergonomic/MSD investigations are often much more challenging to identify a singular root cause.

Ergonomic injuries, most often referred to as musculoskeletal disorders (MSD), are a result of cumulative and chronic exposure to often multiple hazards in the workplace. If a person has been experiencing symptoms of an MSD for potentially months, how do we know or detect what the culprit was/is?

As ergonomists, we typically use a handy �Fishbone� diagram and break the incident down into contributing factors and use that as our starting point to ensure that all hazards have been considered and identified. When looked through a Fishbone diagram the root cause can often look differently and therefore the solution can address differing contributing factors. What are these contributing factors? Let�s take a closer look.

fishbone ergonomic investigation


In terms of environment, we are considering the weather and temperature, lighting, terrain, and any other conditions that may have contributed to the injury. Is the task performed in cold environments such as winter or refrigerated areas? Were air conditioning vents overhead adding decreased temperatures and drafts?


The process refers to the steps required to complete the task being performed and may include a variety of parameters that we must consider as an injury detective. The frequency and duration of the task as well as the physical requirements (i.e. awkward postures) should be included in this step. For example, an incident that favours repetition as a main hazard may not be a result of the fact that the task has a short cycle time but rather that the process requires multiple and unnecessary handling of the product. Extending the time do complete the task would not have reduced the repetition whereas eliminating processes like staging or poor workflow would.


Materials simply refers to the physical materials that are required to complete the task; for example, cold mix for pothole patching or concrete for sidewalk repair. Ask yourself, how might the use of these specific materials have caused the injury in question. Perhaps a lighter material would have reduced the force requirements of the worker, thereby reducing the likelihood of their injury.


Identifying tools and equipment required to perform the task can provide further investigative questions and allow a more accurate account of the incident. Are the tools manual or powered? Was the tool working properly? Are there more appropriate alternatives?


The human element can often be the scapegoat for a poorly conducted investigation. Resulting in human error and retraining as the end cause and solution. In matters of ergonomic/MSD investigations human error is often not a leading cause however factors surrounding an employee�s physical stature or abilities will play into other contributing hazards. It is important to critically think about how the well the employee �FITS� the work they are reaching because they are small or bending because they are tall will all play into understanding why a singular employee is experiencing discomfort while others are not.


When reviewing management factors we need to understand what systems and scheduling condition are in place When workers are exposed to hazards for prolonged periods of time, perhaps due to poor scheduling or lack of training and guidance, it is time to take a look at how management may have contributed to the injury. Ask yourself, �Is there something else that the management parameter could have implemented to minimize injury risk (i.e. rotation, equipment training, best practice training, rest breaks)?�

Once you�ve established all the potential contributing factors, it�s time to take a step back and look at each factor in terms of the hazards that exist. At PROergonomics, we tend to take one of two approaches:

  • Investigate the single contributing factor that has the greatest number of hazards (e.g. �Process� poses 5 hazards compared to 1 hazard in �Environment�); or
  • Investigate the most frequently occurring hazards (i.e. force, static/awkward posture, repetition)

Neither approach is right or wrong but always ask yourself �Would the injury have occurred if this hazard was not present?� This should help you begin to discern where the problem lies and where ergonomic change is most needed with that task or project.

By performing a systematic investigation, we can ensure that the appropriate controls are implemented to reduce the risk of other employees being injured and avoid having to repeat the investigation because the root cause was not thoroughly vetted.

In need of some advice from one of our Ergonomic Detectives to help you in your next investigation? Check out our Ergonomic Risk Assessments service or contact us for some clues on how to get yours started.

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