By Josh DeBroux
When the snow just won’t stop, the time spent plowing really adds up. With hazards like poor visibility, nearby pedestrians or poor traction, ergonomics may not be the first thing that comes to mind when talking snow removal safety with your team. However, can you afford to lose one of your employees for 12 days? This was the average number of days lost from work due to ergonomic-related injuries in 2012. Among all occupational injuries, back injuries generate the highest frequency of disabling injuries. In fact, 80% of the population will experience a back problem at some time in their life. Plus, a person that has injured his back once is four times more likely to reinjure it. By ignoring ergonomics in your business, you ignore one of the most common causes of occupational injuries.
So, what is ergonomics? Simply put, it is fitting the work to the worker, not the other way around. Following are three areas where you can focus on reducing ergonomic risks for your snow removal team.
Getting in and out of the vehicle
For vehicles that require a bit of a climb to get into, this may be more of a risk to your operators than you realize. Vehicle access has been studied by professional ergonomists for transportation and delivery drivers and was found to be a significant ergonomic risk. When training your snow removal team on ergonomic risks, offer these best practices for entering and exiting the vehicle:
- Use the vehicle handholds and steps. Longer handholds have been shown to be the best option because they accommodate a wider range of worker sizes.
- Don’t jump. Require three points of contact and face the vehicle when getting in or out. Jumping or dropping down from vehicles when exiting has been shown to increase the forces on a person’s vertebral discs by 80% to 90%. Facing out while exiting the vehicle can increase those forces by as much as 20% to 40%.
Sitting for prolonged periods
After sitting in a static position for more than 20 to 25 minutes, there is reduced blood flow to your back and the spine loosens up, making it more vulnerable to injury. Jars or shocks from potholes or running into obstacles while plowing shock the back when it’s most vulnerable. To reduce the chance of an ergonomic injury snowplow operators should follow these tips:
- Adjust your position. Slightly adjust your sitting position at least every 20 to 30 minutes.
- Follow the “two-minute warning.” After an operator has been sitting for a prolonged period, such as 20 to 25 minutes or longer, he has two minutes where he must avoid any manual lifting, twisting or activities. These two minutes should be used to walk or simply move around, allowing blood flow to restore to the back.
- Implement good posture and control positioning. When in the cab, the less twisting, stooping or reaching the better. Keeping the seat, mirrors and plow controls positioned in a comfortable, easy-to-use location for the operator can make a huge difference.
Awkward lifts or pulling
If a snowplow operator has to wrestle with the plow to hook it up, the potential for a back injury increases. There are plows available that make this task effortless, but if your operators are hooking up a plow that is difficult to connect to the vehicle, get creative:
- Prop the plow up before disconnecting it from the vehicle, making it easier to connect the next time.
- Keep a long pry bar available in the truck to use as a lever to align the plow with the vehicle instead of the operator using his body.
- Put the plow on a low-profile rolling cart when it is parked, making the plow easier to manipulate when hooking up or moving it to another location without the truck.
- Whenever possible, leave the plow connected.
- Contact your plow dealer. Some have accessories that might aid in the attachment process.
Identify any manual lifts that are obviously awkward, require twisting while holding the load, or must be carried away from the body, even for a moment. A good starting point is to target anything over 40 pounds. Even this weight can be hazardous if lifted the wrong way, but this gives your operator a frame of reference. Professional ergonomists will tell you that the horizontal distance from your body to the load being carried is the one factor that makes the biggest difference in preventing back injury. Also, watch for forceful pulling on things, which can actually be more hazardous than lifting.
Lastly, get things off the floor when possible. If you store materials that need to be lifted and moved manually, elevating the height at which they are stored can dramatically decrease the stress on the back. Ensure access around the load to limit unnecessary reaching or stooping. Remember that the goal of ergonomics is fitting the work to the worker, not the other way around.
The National Safety Council studied data from 2009-2010 and found the average cost of a lower back injury was $39,643. Think of your profit margin and how many jobs it might take to recoup the loss of even one back injury. When viewed in this light, there is suddenly room to spend a little time and money on ergonomics. Aside from the business reasons, you will find the more ergo-friendly a job becomes, the happier your employees will be. Anyone with experience in making such improvements will tell you there is a direct tie with employee morale and ergonomic improvements.
Safer entrances and exits
- Use the handholds and steps to safely enter and exit the vehicle.
- Keep three points of contact with the vehicle at all times (one hand/ two feet, two hands/one foot).
- Never jump down or “fall” forward out of a vehicle.
- Wear shoes with sturdy, no-slip soles
Getting the repetitive motions right
- Bend your knees. Never lift from a stooped or bent-at-the-waist position.
- Keep arms and elbows close to the body while lifting and then carry the load close to your body.
- If placing an item in the back of a truck, place it on the edge and push it. Do not toss it.
Josh DeBroux is a certified safety professional and environmental health and safety director for BOSS Products.