Preventing Sprain & Strain Injuries in the Workplace

Workers at Black Cat Blades in Selkirk, Manitoba had up to 180 sprain and strain injuries between 2004-2005. After implementing ergonomic changes, they now only have nine sprain and strain injuries reported by workers in 2015. Black Cat Blades is a company that supplies parts to construction, mining and road maintenance industries.

This dramatic reduction in injuries was achieved over a number of years. Firstly, the workplace health & safety committee was trained to engage in a risk assessment process to identify all risks and hazards in the workplace.

Tools at Black Cat Blades were redesigned to assist workers in moving heavy products with less effort.  New drop floors allowed workers to be at a comfortable and safe working height as illustrated in this photo of a worker on a dropped floor at the Gas Furnace Press.


Next, a physical demands analysis was done on all major production equipment to understand the real demands they were trying to reduce. As a result, sit/stand stools are now available for employees who stand a great deal.  Ergonomic mats were installed at all production lines so workers can stand on a more comfortable surface.  Job rotation is used to reduce the amount of time workers spend doing repetitive work.

Back safety training was delivered to all employees every year. Supervisors were also trained to identify hazards and address concerns.

In Manitoba, there are over 9,000 injuries a year due to sprains, strains and over exertions that cause workers to miss time from work.  These injuries are called musculoskeletal injuries (MSI) and involve muscles, tendons, nerves, arteries and other soft tissues of the body.  They usually start as day to day aches and pains but can increase in severity to the point of becoming chronic and disabling and affecting a person’s job or at home activities.  Sometimes these injuries are difficult to treat which has both a physical and psychological effect on workers.

The risk of developing these injuries can be reduced by designing the  job demands and work conditions to match the capabilities of all workers.  Ergonomics is a field of study that involves designing jobs to fit worker’s strengths and capabilities.  The goal is to make jobs safer, easier, more comfortable, less stressful and performed with efficiency.  Ergonomics can help to prevent musculoskeletal injuries by controlling hazards that are known to cause or aggravate these injuries.Key factors for successfully solving ergonomic related problems include:

-have a structured approach to problem solving
-actively involve workers in the process
-take the time to develop effective solutions

The most effective way to reduce and control the risk of MSIs is to develop a structured approach to identify, assess and solve problem jobs in the short and long term.  This ‘ergonomic program’ approach includes an understanding of MSIs and ergonomic risk factors, gaining management commitment, involving workers, having a breadth of training and education, a system to identify problem jobs and a process to develop and implement solutions.

Worker involvement is key to having a successful ergonomic program.  Workers know their jobs well, can identify the specific issues causing problems, and can usually come up with solutions that will work for them.  The best way to encourage workers to follow safe work practices or to use new equipment is to actively involve them in the identification of hazards, assessment of risk, and the development and implementation of solutions.  Another strategy to encourage workers to use new solutions is to conduct tests of the new process or equipment.  Active participation in identifying the problem, selecting the solution, and evaluating the change before it is fully implemented can greatly minimize workers’ anxiety over change.  Sometimes a great idea on paper does not work as expected.  “New’ is not necessarily better.

The final key to successfully reducing MSI risk is to follow a structured approach to develop and implement an appropriate solution.  There are many examples of workplaces jumping to solutions and then finding out it does not help, workers will not like it, or it costs too much.  By following a structured approach to develop and implement solutions the workplace will make a better solution choice, buy products that fix the root cause of the problem, and gain the acceptance of workers.  A structured approach to solving ergonomic problems includes:

1) Determine solution options
2) Evaluate those options,
3) Implement appropriate solutions
4) Follow up

Some solutions for reducing the risk of MSIs in the workplace include:  providing, positioning and maintaining equipment, developing safe work procedures, implementing work schedules that incorporate rest and recovery periods, changes to workloads or providing personal protective equipment.

When an ergonomics solution is evaluated, a workplace should have both short and long term outcomes.  Does the solution reduce the risk factors in the short term?  Do injuries and pain decrease in workers over the long term?  Again, all aspects of solution development and implementation must involve the affected workers.

Additional resources for ergonomic solutions can be found at the following websites:

This article appears in OHC’s March 2016 edition of “Focus on Occupational Health & Safety” newsletter.

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