While there are current health and safety laws that aim to reduce and prevent MSDs in workers, the implementation of new regulations can change the way in which musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) risk management is conducted in the mining workplace.
Research has shown that the implementation of an ergonomic design into the workplace can dramatically reduce MSDs in miners, lower their exposure to risk factors and shown an overall improvement in worker productivity.
Prevalence of Musculoskeletal Disorders in Miners
A MSD describes any type of injury or disorder that involves the strain to the joints, ligaments, muscles, nerves, tendons and any other structures within the body that support the limbs, neck and back. These symptoms can occur suddenly following a single forceful action, such as lifting a heavy object, over a longer period of time following continuous injury to the same area of the body, or a combination of both that involves a cumulative injury resulting in a weakening of the tissue that is more vulnerable to acute injury.
Workers in the mining industry are often more susceptible to acquiring MSDs due to the following risk factors of their daily tasks:
- Neck rotation, lateral flexion or extension
- Trunk rotation, lateral flexion or extension
- Wrist extension or ulnar deviation
- Forearm rotation
- Static Postures- which involve little or no movement to a body part that often leads to discomfort
- Repetitive Tasks- often involving a similar pattern of movements that is often associated with cumulative injury
- Use of High-Frequency Vibration Tools- can cause direct damage to nerves and blood vessels in the arms, hands and back
- Slips, Trips and Falls
- High Job Demands and Time Pressure
- Extended Duration of Tasks
Both sudden and cumulative injury in the miner is a major financial burden to the industry, as these injuries often involve a greater amount of lost workdays and increased workers’ compensation costs. In fact, it is estimated that MSD-related mining injuries account for 50% of all claims, costing the industry more than $9.5 million each year.
What is Ergonomics?
Ergonomics is defined as the scientific discipline that is centered on understanding the interactions between people and other elements of a system in an effort to optimize their well being and overall performance within a given industry. By applying these principles to the design and evaluation of workers’ manual tasks, jobs and overall environments, ergonomic solutions have been shown to successfully improve MSD injury risks in various industries.
Such ergonomic preventions have often involved the modification of various work practices, existing equipment, tools and other devices used in the production process, all of which have been shown to improve worker efficiency and productivity.
Ergonomics Applied to Miners
Ergonomics tackles each of the risk factors that are specific to the miner’s daily tasks to reduce or completely eliminate the ability of these conditions to cause MSDs in workers. To reduce the harmful effects that awkward positions can cause to the worker, ergonomic design aims to provide tasks to workers that can be performed while remaining in a neutral posture position.
Some of these neutral postures are described by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) as relaxed shoulders that hang normally at the side of the body, a balanced head and neck position while sitting and a vertical back that displays an S-curve when standing. Poorly designed hand tools are also a common source of awkward postures, therefore the use of lightweight hand tools that keep joint postures in neutral positions that exert as little vibration as possible would greater reduce the amount of associated risk.
A common risk factor that increases a worker’s risk to MSDs include the manual lifting and handling of bulk-sized loads. One way in which ergonomic principles looks to reduce load-related injuries is to reduce the size and weight of loads, as well as ensure that workers are not carrying multiple loads to increase production speed.
Additionally, a reduction in the shift duration or pace of work by adjusting work distribution throughout the workday or workweek within the mine could also reduce MSD risks. When risk factor exposures cannot be effectively eliminated or reduced with such design controls, the required use of certain forms of personal protective equipment (PPE) may also serve as a protective barrier to these risk factors.
The open discussion between administrators and workers in an effort to adjust design controls within the mine could also greatly reduce MSD risks. Workers are most familiar with the strain that certain tasks cause to their bodies, therefore the implementation of improved system designs could not only improve the health of the worker, but also provide workers with a sense of ownership for the results of these changes. Mining administrators are also responsible for consistently maintaining optimal condition of tools, equipment and mechanical aids for miners in an effort to not only ensure optimal productivity of these tools, but also reduce any possible MSD-related risk factors.
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- “Ergonomics Processes Implementation Guide and Tools for the Mining Industry” – Centers for Disease Control
- “Ergonomics” – The United States Department of Labor
- “Managing Musculoskeletal Disorders” – NSW Mine Safety Advisory Council