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How to Manage Repetitive Motions in Industrial Environments

May 11, 2022 | All Articles, Ergonomics, Productivity

Repetitive motions are an identified ergonomic risk factor that can cause physical injuries. Managing it means reducing the repetitive motions through utilizing different ergonomic solutions, setting up appropriate workstations, and implementing various work practice controls.

Reducing repetitive movements in industrial environments is very important to employees because it prevents or decreases their risk of pain and injuries, increases their productivity and morale, and reduces absenteeism.

It also benefits the employers because fewer work injuries mean fewer costs.  Increased productivity for workers translates into increased revenues.

This article will discuss repetitive motions, their impact on employees, and ways to manage their risks to ensure a comfortable and safe working environment.

Let’s jump in.

What are repetitive motions?

Repetitive motions are movements done repeatedly. They also refer to doing multiple tasks with similar movements and involving the same tissues and muscles.

Many jobs have repetitive tasks, especially those that have production targets. Some industries and jobs that have repetitive tasks include sewing positions, manufacturing positions, construction workers, and office workers.

Let’s take a look at the bottle packaging operation as an example of a job with repetitive motions.

A worker has to pack twenty-four bottles in one box. One cycle involves reaching for bottles, grasping them, moving them to the box, and then placing the bottles in the box.

If the worker can grasp two bottles simultaneously, they will repeat the cycle twelve times to fill the box. Presuming that one cycle of grasping takes two seconds, it would take twenty-four seconds to pack a box with twenty-four bottles.

Another example is working in a warehouse, a booming industry even with the presence of the pandemic in 2020. Repetitive tasks in warehouse work include lifting and moving boxes on and off racks, bending to lift heavy items, and gripping bulky materials.

There is no standard yet to determine how a motion is classified as high repetitive or low repetitive. However, some researchers consider it a high repetitive task if completed in less than thirty seconds and low repetitive if completed in more than thirty seconds.

What impact can repetitive motions have on employees?

Repetitive motions can cause wear and tear on the employees’ bodies, specifically on muscles, tendons, and joints. When the body is not given enough time to recover as fast as they tear, inflammation will occur. This can induce pain and will eventually lead to temporary or permanent injuries.

Having no breaks or even too short pauses between movements does not give room for muscle recovery. This accumulates the effects of the forces exerted, causing muscle tension which can result in muscle fatigue and strain. This mostly happens in jobs with highly repetitive tasks, fast pacing, and constant muscle activity, such as constantly holding hand tools.

When combined with other ergonomic risk factors, such as awkward postures and high force, the required recovery time also increases. The recovery time varies based on the part that is involved in the repetitive movement.

Employees who have no control over timing or work speed are at high risk for work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs). These work-related injuries are generally called repetitive motion disorders.

Repetitive motion disorders (RMDs), also known as repetitive stress injuries, are muscular conditions caused by many uninterrupted repetitive movements, awkward motions (e.g., twisting wrists), overexertion, muscle fatigue, or incorrect posture. This occurs not only in the wrists, hands, shoulders, and elbows but also in the back, neck, knees, legs, ankles, and feet.

People with RMDs may experience pain, numbness, tingling, visible swelling in the affected area, weakness, and loss of flexibility. Some have no obvious signs of injury, but they have trouble performing easy tasks.

Generally, people doing repetitive tasks such as meatpacking, playing musical instruments, computer work, or assembly line work are likely to have RMDs.

RMDs can also affect people who are into gardening, carpentry, and tennis.

How to manage risks from repetitive motions?

Ergonomics exists to address the health risks in the workplace brought by repetitive motions. It involves scientific modifications of work and work environments to fit the job to an employee, improving efficiency and ensuring safety.

Here are the ways to manage the risks from repetitive motions:

Appropriately set up workstations

Setting up appropriate workstations for your workers can eliminate excessive force required in performing a task, consequently reducing the risk of muscle fatigue and the development of repetitive motion disorders.

Companies typically design workstations in a “one size fits all” style. However, this can cause discomfort for most workers because each worker is different. Designing a workstation for each worker is impractical and costly.

BOSTONtec advocates for designing workstations for adjustability. This inclusive strategy accommodates 90 percent of workers in a company because it recognizes individual differences and meets individual needs with flexible designs.

An adjustable workstation eliminates unnecessary motions in a job, which helps decrease the risk for repetitive stress injuries and increases workers’ productivity by up to 25%.

Use ergonomic solutions to minimize repetitive motions

Ergonomic solutions ensure that essential supplies are within easy reach and operators perform tasks in neutral postures.

ergonomic accessories

Here are a couple of examples.

Articulating bin holder

Ergonomic tools such as articulating bin holders can assist an operator in performing a task while reducing the exertion of muscles and effort.

An articulating bin holder supports storage bins of assorted sizes. It brings supplies to reach zone 1 or 2, which is closer to the worker. It reduces the risk posed by repeated reaching motions.

It can be mounted on uprights on left or right side. It swings out of the way when not in use.

Tool support

Tool support is also a way to manage risks brought by repetitive tasks. It places tools within the proper ergonomic reach zones to reduce operator motions and improve productivity.

Tool track in combination with tool trolley and tool balancer  keep power tools close to the operator to minimize motions and cycle time. It also reduces some of the weight from the power tool. It helps reduce strain of repeated motions.

The benefits of ergonomic workstations and accessories were confirmed in an in-depth motion study, which was part of an ergonomic study conducted by The Ergonomics Center of North Carolina State University.

The study saw an improvement of 39% in reducing time on non-value added motions in an assembly task when the test objects used the ergonomically adjustable workstations.

Work practice controls

Work practice controls change the way a task is performed to make the job safer. Here are some of the work practice controls to lessen the risk of repetitive motions:

Job rotation

Job rotation and job enlargement are good strategies to control the risks posed by repetitive tasks.  They reduce repetitive movements combined with awkward postures and therefore reduce the risk of developing a musculoskeletal disorder.

Job rotation assigns employees to different jobs within the organization which they perform at certain intervals.  This strategy allows the employees to recover from strains of muscles, tendons, joints caused by a particular repetitive task.

Meanwhile, job enlargement adds additional tasks at the same level that are related to a particular job. It increases the employees’ responsibilities.  It is also an effective way to decrease monotonous tasks, combat boredom, and increase engagement.

Stretch breaks

Stretch breaks and rest give employees’ bodies sufficient recovery time. They counteract sustained awkward postures and increase circulation vital for recovery.

Improvements in work processes

Work process assessment should be done regularly to determine potential health risks and areas for improvement.  Improvement in work procedures should involve reducing non-value-added motions, awkward postures, and forceful exertions.

Examples of improving work processes include assigning items to the appropriate ergonomic reach zones, using dollies and carts to carry heavy items,  and sliding the items instead of lifting them with the help of surface rollers and ball transfers.

Training for appropriate work techniques

While it is essential for employers to find ways to maintain a safe and comfortable work environment for their workers, workers should also do their part.

Training is the best way to teach employees about improved work processes and proper work techniques to minimize the risk of repetitive motion disorders. This also informs and encourages workers that they also have the responsibility to reduce health risks involved in their job.

Conclusion

Ergonomic risk factors, such as repetitive motions, need ergonomic solutions. There are health risks, as we presented above, as well as ways to reduce the risks. However, every company has unique needs.

You can consult the experts at BOSTONtec for the right ergonomic solutions for your company. But the reduction of health risks in your workplace needs both employers’ willingness and employees’ active role in ensuring health and safety at work.

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