Ergonomics: The study of people’s efficiency in their working environment. Oxford Dictionary

Modern definition ergonomics: Fitting a job to the employee rather than the employee to the job.

Simply put, shop owners have a choice to make. If we fit the job to the person, we benefit by:

• Fewer injuries, lower worker comp rates
• More satisfied employee with higher morale
• More productive employee
• Higher quality measures
• The ability to keep older techs longer

If we don’t fit the job we will continue to lose people to other industries that are already ahead of us. Moreover, techs will leave earlier since their bodies are simply no longer healthy at what we might consider a young age. And we’ll keep the older, more experienced tech on the job, happier and healthier for much longer.

“Couldn’t agree more, been doing [this] for 12 years and the only thing I have to show for it is a busted back, bad knees, and a severed tendon in my hand.” – Tech Blog age 33

Originally I set out to write an article about what’s happening to our older techs. To prepare I interviewed a number of techs, studied the literature, dropped into tech blogs and more. What I found was eye opening. The injuries that plague our older techs don’t suddenly start later in their career. They begin in their 30s and 40s and simply get worse, along with work attendance and worker comp claims. So, for the next few minutes we’ll strive to provide you with proven techniques and ideas to help our techs stay healthier, longer.

A while back, Washington State Worker’s Comp Bureau did a detailed breakdown of their claims from auto-repair shops. From most often claimed to least:

• Eyes 29%
• Others (variety of issues such as chemical spills, undetermined at time of claim and more) 21%
• Fingers 15%
• Back 11%
• Hand 7%
• Knee 5%
• Wrist 4%
• Multiple issues 3%
• Shoulder 3%
• Balance others.

According to a variety of more current sources, these numbers may shift a bit, but the issues tend to hold the same order. What is fascinating is that back injuries make up 11% of the claims, but approximately 29% of the dollars spent for care! We can’t ignore the back issues if we hope to keep our techs productive.
Oh, and a not so fun party fact: between 2003 and 2005, per the government, 147 techs died on the job. Hasn’t improved much here either. In fact, this rate is higher than many other occupations. Scary. But, you put tons of vehicles in the air and anything can happen.

“But the worst part is it beats up your body and only getting two or three weeks off a year, and lifting and smashing metal while standing on concrete all day destroys you. I’m 35 and tired of the boss saying I come to work sick, why can’t you?” – Tech Blog, age 35

Saving backs

The general definition of ergonomics, again, is fitting the job to the tech, not the tech to the job. As we consider this, our job then is to reduce injuries by reducing overuse of muscles and joints, correct bad posture and simplify and better managed repeated motion tasks. In keeping with my approach to writing, we’ll head straight for what is known to work and is available today.

First, a task for you. Either yank out your worker’s comp report, injuries file and whatever else you have to assist you in ranking the target areas to attack in your shop. Chances are it is similar to what was detailed earlier, but there may be subtle differences. With this list in mind, consider the following techniques for reducing injuries:

According to OSHA, shoulder, neck, and back injuries, of the total, with the majority of accidents occur when lifting a tire or wheel assembly, or other heavy item. The average Workers’ Compensation claim for these injuries is $11,000, and 100 days of lost work productivity. These do not include the indirect costs of filing claims and hiring replacement workers.

Tire and wheel combinations can weigh in at about 30 pounds for a small steel wheel and tire for a compact vehicle to well over 80 pounds for light trucks. That’s a lot of weight! Do a tire rotation and you’ve got possibly 300 or more pounds total.

The answer? Don’t pick up the wheel and tire assembly. Instead, utilize any of the mainly pneumatic tools available today that allow the tech to loosen and remove the wheel/tire without lifting, move it around and replace it all with no weigh-bearing issues. If this isn’t feasible, invest in a set of lift wings, aka tire hangars. This allows the tech to remain upright throughout the wheel/tire service and not have to bend to place the assembly on the floor.

“My husband has been turning wrenches for 23 years and has had more surgeries than I can keep up with. He’s in chronic pain and about to have another back surgery. He is very skilled and enjoys the work but won’t be able to do it much longer. We are trying to figure out what he can do next.” – Tech Blog, age 42

Other approaches include providing elastic back wraps/braces for each tech like you see movers and other use and requiring their use. The models with suspenders seem to be most popular with the techs. And, better models are well vented to avoid heat and sweating and simple to put on avoiding issues with getting it placed properly. If someone complains, tell them you are doing it to keep them healthy and its part of an overall shop program for their good. Don’t know too many people who would think that’s a bad idea.

Another proven approach to saving backs is to provide the wheeled (make sure they have simple-to-use wheel locks if provided) tech chairs. Those made to assist your ergonomics program will have comfortable seating with a back tall enough to support the back and help enforce good posture. They’re great for working under vehicles as well. Also, a swivel seat and the ability to adjust the height of seating are important. For one interesting option, check out seating/creepers such as that offered by the “Human Hoist, LLC.”

Given the popularity of trucks and SUVs, rather than force your techs to climb all over engine bays at awkward angles, look at providing a topside creeper. They provide safe steps, are wheeled, and offer a padded cushion upon which to lay forward while lifting the tech over the work.

Keep all heavy items and parts the tech needs above the floor level and such that a tech is able to easily take the item straight off the shelf and carry without bending. Utilize the middle shelves for the heavy stuff, and the upper and lower shelves for the light stuff.

Training, techniques

Provide any of the better training programs for healthy back/knee/hands/feet. Your worker compensation insurance carrier may have some available or recommendations. Otherwise ask your equipment vendors. If all else fails, look online for programs from established, well-regarded sources.

One shop I am aware of brings in a physical therapist a couple of times a year. While there, the P.T. provides stretches, safe weight handling techniques and much more. There is material provided between visits to keep employees engaged. Others that may be willing to help are physical trainers (especially those with backgrounds and/or degrees in kinesiology), occupational therapists and similar professionals.

One really interesting discussion had to do with the weight and impact of popular shop power tools. General consensus was to use the lightest tool available that offers a sturdy well-padded handle and shock absorption.

Provide plenty of rolling carts, both those specific to a job and those that can hold parts and tools at waist level. It will increase productivity and decrease injuries. You’ll also be miles ahead if you provide appropriate lifting aids.

One simple, inexpensive way to lower back trauma is by providing good, padded fender covers. That way the techs are able to lean on the fender without damaging the vehicle while providing support.

Slips and trips also cause back issues, along with other muscle and skeleton structures. To avoid these problems, consider the following:

• Institute a spill-it pick-it-up program. Keep oil dry handy, along with brooms, mops, pails etc. Insist that any spill or hazard be taken care of before work recommences.

• Move air, lube and other hoses along with cords to the ceiling with pull down reels and get them off of the floor.

Eyes, extremities

Eyes are another big category. This one is so simple it’s almost too easy! Good safety glasses with side shields for all techs. Insist that they are worn at all times in the shop area. You too. One ER doctor shared with me that many eye injuries are from objects, fluids, sparks, etc. that actually come from another tech/bay. So even though your tech may not think his safety glasses are needed all day, he cannot control what happens a few feet away. Provide regular replacement and repair as needed. Some first aid suppliers offer this service.

And, while we’re at it, put in an eye wash station. It does not mean that the tech doesn’t go for appropriate medical care, but it may well lessen the extent of any injury to the eye.

Fingers, hands and wrists are next. This is a tough one. Slivers of different materials, pinched fingers, burns tend to top the list. A good set of tech gloves will go a long way towards providing a remedy. In any event, be sure to provide power free, non-latex gloves for things like fluid changes and more.

One of the biggies in the “other” category is feet and ankles. This is a very easy fix. Problems here from what I have learned are turned ankles, smashed toes from things falling on them and similar issues. Steel toe boots with a lace cover and a supportive top that’s above the ankle will solve a lot of injuries. For feet, ankles, knees and backs, non-slip padded floor mats alongside each side of the lift and in front of any benches. There are boot programs for shops. Consider kicking in some money since great boots aren’t cheap. Less than a claim, though!

Noise: First, you will help a lot if you ban ear buds and music in the shop. It’s not only a hearing issue, but safety as well since they may not hear others, vehicles moving, instructions and more. Then, instead, soft ear plugs that allow sound through but deadens the impact of high decibel noises. Many tools have very high-decibel counts.

Self-care: We addressed this last month. But, if you want to keep older techs, help them adopt and live healthy attitudes, eating and exercise, along with a strong stretching program to do at home before coming to the shop.

This article could continue. But the moral of the story is simply this: If you want to keep productive, older techs, help them be safe and healthy younger techs. It will cost something up front in equipment and training, but payoff in retention of experienced people, lower worker comp insurance and claim expenses, greater productivity, lower absenteeism and ultimately, more money in your pocket.