Sometimes the Best Position is Neutral
 July 11, 2011

You would never drive your car in the neutral position because the car’s design and engineering never contemplated the driver operating the car in neutral. But, keeping a neutral posture on the job is actually desirable because the human body was designed to work in certain positions in order to be most effective at a given task and at the same time not damage itself.

A neutral posture equals good posture and good posture is an essential part of an ergonomically sound work environment. Ergonomics is the study of fitting jobs to the people who perform them. If you train your employees to achieve and maintain a neutral position as they work, it will reduce the chance of someone suffering musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) so often associated with material handling operations. These are not lacerations, fractures or contusions, but instead are the mysterious "soft tissue" injuries that workers can experience.

Now, what is a musculoskeletal disorder?
A musculoskeletal disorder is a condition where a part of musculoskeletal system is injured over time. This disorder occurs when the body part is called upon to work harder, stretch farther, impact more directly or otherwise function at a greater level then it is prepared for. The immediate impact may be small, but when it occurs repeatedly the cumulative trauma causes damage. Pain is the chief symptom of most musculoskeletal disorders and this pain may be mild or severe, as well as, local or widespread (diffuse). Ok, little aches and pains are part of life and as employers why should we care about these seemingly minor sprains and strains? Because, they can be anything but minor. Research reveals that:

  • MSDs account for about 30 percent of all lost time work related injuries every year.
  • The duration of medical treatment and costs for claims involving MSDs average higher than the average claim.
  • Nationally, there are more than 185 million days lost from work due to MSDs.
  • Sprains and strains, by far, are the leading occupational injuries (between 30% - 50% depending on the industry).


What can employers do to avoid having a frequent pattern of MSD’s?

Make proper ergonomics part of new employee training and repeated safety training. Give your employees specific direction about the body's position while performing a variety of tasks. Coach them to have good posture.

Train employees to maintain a neutral posture and address the following:

  • Head straight and facing forward. Avoid extended periods of tilting, turning, or bowing your head. This puts strain on your neck.
  • Straight back posture. Avoid extended periods of twisting to the side or bending forward which puts strain on your back.
  • Keep your arms hanging comfortably to your side. Don’t hunch your shoulders. Hold your elbows close to your side, and keep your forearms parallel to the ground. If employees are working with their arms over head, extended forward, or out to the side it will put a strain on their shoulders and elbows.
  • Wrists in a straight line with your forearms. If your hands are flexed up or down, bent to the side, or twisted for extended periods of time it puts a strain on your wrists.
  • Stand with your feet a shoulder width apart. This keeps your weight balanced and reduces leg and back fatigue.
  • Not squatting or kneeling for extended periods. These positions put a strain on your knees and low back.

In addition to training your employees, there may need to make engineering adjustments in the workplace. These are often simple and not costly, but improve the workplace so employees can maintain a neutral posture.

  • Adjustments can include :Adjusting work surfaces to an ergonomically correct height for the employee assigned to that work station.
  • Using anti-fatigue mats and footrests to help reduce back strain if the employee stands for most of their work shift.
  • Adjusting their chairs so the employee’s back touches the chair back and their feet rest on the floor or on a footrest if they sit for most of their work shift.
  • Placing any computer monitors directly in front of your employees and at arm's length. They should not have to turn their neck to look at the monitor. Ensure the monitor is positioned so that their eyes are aligned with a point that is 2 to 3 inches below the top of the screen.
  • Positioning the employee’s keyboard so they can place their hands and wrists in the neutral position with their elbows close to their bodies. Wrists should be flat and in line with their forearms and not angled up or turned in or out. They should rest their wrists on a wrist rest when typing.

A word or two about backs. Back injuries are costly and often produce the most difficult workers’ compensation claims to manage. They arise from a host of causes referred to as "exertion causes" (pushing, pulling, lifting, carrying, bending, kneeling, etc) and are attributable to both specificallytraumatic (one time) events and cumulative trauma (repetitive activity). Commonly, they arise because the employee did not approach a task safely or they had a non-neutral posture as they completed there work.

To reduce the occurrence of back injures pay particular attention to three preventive measures:

  • Prepare for the task – encourage employees to stretch before starting work, especially after breaks or prolonged sitting.
  • Maintain correct posture – The neutral position is critical to avoiding back injuries.
  • Lift objects properly – Use mechanical aids and your legs. Know your limitations and don’t hesitate to ask for help.

Part of creating and supporting a positive safety culture in your company is demonstrating to employees that their safety and avoiding injuries is a priority. The neutral position will help your employees. They’ll be both more productive and safe, which benefits you as their employer by reducing the incidence of work related injuries and lowers your workers’ compensation costs.

For more information on this topic contact CMTA at wcgroup@cmta.net.

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