In December 2019, the Minister of Employment and Labour published the new Ergonomics Regulations in terms of section 43 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1993. These regulations focus on a programme to approach the management of the physical and cognitive ergonomics in the workplace and applies to:

  • Employers
  • Self-employed workers who carry out work at a workplace
  • The person or entity that designs, manufactures, installs, or supplies machinery, equipment or other articles and supplies to be used at work

The regulation is not prescriptive in that it does not, for example, prescribe specific risk assessments, preferred suppliers, weight limits, or repetition limits. A company is free to choose an ergonomics programme and risk assessment that is suitable to the business.

A risk assessment must be done to quantify the risks and prioritise the risks identified. A bespoke ergonomics programme must be built around this risk assessment to be an effective match to the business’ operations. The risk assessment must be completed at two-year intervals or if there is a change in the working conditions within the two-year time frame. It is also incumbent on the business/employer to ensure that the designers and installers of any machinery or equipment as well as the suppliers of any articles used have considered ergonomics in their products.

But what is ergonomics?

Ergonomics is defined as “the scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of interactions among humans and other elements of a system, and the profession that applies theory, principles, data and methods to design in order to optimise human well-being and overall system performance.” (International Ergonomics Association)

In layman’s terms, ergonomics is the process of designing and/or arranging workplaces and systems in such a way that they fit the people who use them. The goal is to create a safe, comfortable, and productive workplace by taking human considerations and limitations into account when designing the workspace.

In practical terms, think of workers who suffer repetitive stress injuries. These injuries, officially called “repetitive strain injury (RSI)” is caused by a gradual build-up of damage to muscles, tendons, and nerves form repetitive actions. Such repetitive actions include:

  • using a computer mouse
  • typing
  • swiping items at a supermarket checkout
  • grasping tools
  • working on an assembly line

The regulations require that a business or employer must implement an ergonomics programme, within the existing Health & Safety policies, to protect any worker exposed to ergonomic risks in the workplace.

Employees must be trained about the basics of ergonomics, including what the risks are and what measures have been put in place to address the issues related to ergonomics. Employers must, as far as reasonably practical, remove or reduce exposure to ergonomic risk factors through control measures.

Ergonomic Risk Factors are activities associated with job activities involving any of the following risk factors that may contribute to or result in an RSI:

  • Awkward postures
  • Bending
  • Compression or contact stress
  • Forceful exertions
  • Insufficient rest breaks
  • Lifting
  • Lighting
  • Noise
  • Pushing, pulling
  • Reaching
  • Repetitive motions
  • Static or sustained postures
  • Temperature extremes
  • Vibration

A medical surveillance programme, overseen by an occupational medical practitioner, needs to be established to track ergonomic related injuries/diseases. The programme should be structured similar to the steps of an Injury on Duty (IOD), namely an initial report of the RSI, periodic monitoring, and a recovery/exit health examination.