Reducing repetitive motion workplace injuries

By SFM Loss Prevention Specialist Mike Fetting, CSP, CIEE, CSPHA

The potential for injury from repetitive motion and awkward positions in jobs is widespread across many industries and businesses.

You can greatly reduce the likelihood of these injuries by implementing best practices in workplace ergonomics.

Epicondylitis, tenosynovitis, trigger finger, tendonitis, and carpal tunnel syndrome are all common repetitive motion injuries that can develop over time without correct workplace ergonomics. While these types of injuries can occur in the lower body, they are much more common in the upper body — shoulders, elbows, wrists, hands and fingers.

Force, frequency and awkward position are the three main ergonomic hazards. Repetitive motion (frequency) alone is unlikely to cause an injury. The risk elevates when frequency is accompanied by excessive force, awkward position, or both. Vibration, static postures, contact stress and cold temperatures can also play a role in increasing risk.

There are a variety of benchmarks you can use to determine basic injury potential, but a professional ergonomic evaluation is the most accurate way to assess the risk of injury. Even without a professional evaluation, you can perform you own basic risk evaluation.

Consider the following:

  • Force/intensity of exertion – Is the effort obvious? Is there a change of facial expression? Does a task using the hands require shoulder or trunk involvement?
  • Speed of work – Is the worker visibly rushed or just keeping up?
  • Duration of the cycle – Does the specific body part ever get a break while performing this task?
  • Hours per day – Does the worker perform this same task all day?
  • Awkward position – A neutral position is one in which the upper body is in the handshake position with the elbow at the side. The further away a worker’s body is from that neutral state, the more awkward the position will be, and the higher the propensity for a variety of repetitive motion injuries.

Preventing repetitive motion injury

There are three main tools for reducing the risk of repetitive motion injury: engineering, job rotation and stretching.

Engineering is easily the most powerful intervention. Changes should focus on the main risk factors: force, frequency and awkward position. Examples include changing from pistol grip to inline drivers, tilting the work, adding fixtures to hold the work, adding automation or mechanical assist to the job (or some portion of the process). It is important to work closely with employees and supervisors since changes may cause unforeseen problems. Ask employees to have an open mind and test changes for at least several days.

Once engineering is exhausted, the next most useful tool is reducing exposure through job rotation. Ideally the tasks use very different muscles, but even moderate differences can be helpful. Reducing a specific joint’s use from eight hours per day to two hours per day can cut the risk in half, according to some ergonomic models. One popular method is to change tasks at each break, including lunch. In most places, this means each employee will have three different jobs during the day. Changing tasks every two hours is even better. Some workplaces have high-demand tasks that are rotated after just one half-hour!

Lastly, stretching and flexing to warm up the muscles and get them ready for work can be a valuable addition to a complete ergonomic program. Check out for stretching exercises and workplace ergonomics tips.

The best solutions preserve employee health, increase production, and can even increase your job-candidate pool. Over the long term, fewer injuries often translate into lower workers’ compensation insurance premiums.

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