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Quick Fixes for Contact Stresses

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A common but often unnoticed workplace ergonomics problem is contact stress. While not a major cause of reported on–the–job injuries, contact stress can slow down workers in their job duties and can lead to other injuries, especially when combined with other ergonomic risk factors: force, repetition and awkward postures. Contact stress can occur in nearly any type of job.

Points of Contact

Contact stress happens when some part of a worker’s body—knees, elbows, wrists or fingers, for example—touches or rubs up against a hard, sharp or inflexible surface repetitively or for an extended period of time. The surface could be a workstation, the floor, a ladder, a tool or the handle of a bucket.

Localized pressure from the surface or object against sensitive body tissue can affect blood flow, nerve function, or movement of tendons and muscles. It can also impede the range of motion of muscles and tendons, cause inflammation and bruised muscles, tingling, numbness, reduced grip strength, stiffness, loss of circulation and aching.

Common Problems and Solutions

Here are some common activities that cause contact stress and some suggestions for preventing or reducing the severity of that stress.

  • Redesign the task or find alternate tools that eliminate the need to kneel
  • Wear knee pads or use a kneeling pad
  • Have workers take frequent breaks from the kneeling position
Resting elbows on a hard surface to hold the weight of your head; causes elbow bursitis, often called “student elbow”
  • Rest elbows on a pad, such as a mouse pad
  • Provide a chair with padded armrests
  • Train workers (or students) to avoid this posture
Using the hand or palm as a hammer
  • Have a hammer close at hand and train workers to always use the correct tool for the job
  • Provide hammers with comfort–grip handles or power tools if appropriate
Carrying a heavy pail with a small diameter or plain wire handle
  • Add a second handle to the pail to spread the weight
  • Add padding or a padded clamp–on handle
  • Wear gloves to add another layer of protection
  • Use a cart or dolly to move heavy pails
Resting wrists or forearms on edges of desks or worktables
  • Provide workstations with rounded edges
  • Provide padding or wrist/armrests and a mouse pad in appropriate spots
  • Redesign workstation to reduce contact between wrist/forearm and inflexible surfaces
Carrying a heavy object with sharp edges that dig into palms or fingers
  • Pad object or add carrying handles
  • Wear gloves with padded palms when lifting or holding the object
  • Use team lifts to spread the weight
  • Use pallet jacks or other mechanical material handling tools
  • Break heavy or bulky loads into smaller, more manageable loads
Repetitive use of tools with non-cushioned handles
  • Modify the task to reduce or eliminate the use of tools
  • Add padding to tools and/or wear padded gloves
  • Check to be sure the tool fits the user’s hand and replace or modify the grip if it doesn’t fit well
  • Purchase tools with comfort-grip handles or make customized grips; to do this, purchase heat moldable material, heat it and have the worker grip it while still warm to form a handle to fit his/her grasp
Resting forearms on hard armrests
  • Wrap a layer of padding onto armrests
  • Purchase a chair with padded armrests
Carrying boxes or bins
  • Use boxes or bins with handholds
  • Provide padded gloves to protect hands and fingers
  • Use carts or dollies to move the load

Photos of some of the solutions can be found in EMC’s Workplace Injury Prevention Guide (pages 9-10). In addition to making changes in tools or workstations, add micro breaks and stretching exercises to work routines to keep minor stresses from becoming full–blown injuries.

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