Working on an assembly line can be a physically demanding job. Due to COVID-19 and the recent global supply chain issues, some employees may have spent a period of time either not working or working reduced hours. Leadership must consider the possibility of physical deconditioning as employees return to physical workplaces, as it can increase musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) risk as well as reduce productivity and product quality.
Changes in the human body due to a reduction in physical activity is known as physical deconditioning. Potential issues may involve:
- Reduced muscle strength. The average human can lose between 1% and 3% of muscle strength per day. This can result in a noticeable loss in strength after multiple weeks of sedentary behavior.
- Reduced cardiovascular fitness. Lack of physical activity can cause the heart to lose strength, making it more difficult to quickly pump blood to the working muscle during physical activity. This results in less oxygen and energy getting to the working muscle, causing the body to fatigue more quickly.
- Reduced physical endurance. When there is less oxygen getting to the working muscle and tissue, there can also be lactic acid buildup. This contributes to early muscle fatigue and muscle soreness following the activity.
- Reduced range of motion. Weeks of reduced activity may reduce joint elasticity and limit one’s ability to extend or bend body segments. This stiffness may require workers to adapt and change the way they complete tasks when they return to work, or they risk straining or other injuries.
- Increased whole-body fatigue. It may take time for employees to re-acclimate to the physical demands of their jobs, creating a temporary period of muscle fatigue.
- Weight gain. When employees switch from daily physical activity to a more sedentary lifestyle, they burn fewer calories per day. Pandemic-related weight gain can negatively impact employee physical stamina.
Optimize Work Performance
Here are strategies to help employees return to work safely, with a focus on optimized performance and wellbeing:
- Review standard operating procedures. Instruct each employee to review standard operating procedures (SOP). Each SOP should be up to date and available for review prior to restarting work. This can help workers recall all steps in the process or prepare for the next model production. Ultimately, it can help reduce errors and improve product quality.
- Limit overtime hours. Prevent additional physical stress by limiting overtime hours. Employers should consider having more employees work fewer hours, as opposed to having fewer employees work more hours.
- Take a break. Encourage employees to take all available breaks throughout the day. Breaks from physical activity allow time for muscle recovery.
- Proactively communicate physical discomfort. Encourage employees to proactively communicate physical discomfort to their supervisor. Whether it is through weekly discomfort surveys or ergonomics self-assessments, this communication can help identify issues and address them before they develop into an MSD.
- Complete ergonomics self-assessments. Train each employee to complete an ergonomics self-assessment. Use a qualitative assessment tool, such as the Ergonomics Hit List® by VelocityEHS, to enable employees to assess each task within their day-to-day job.
- Offer ergonomics awareness training. Have all employees complete general ergonomics awareness training to gain a full understanding of what ergonomics is, why it is important for everyone and what is expected of them in relation to ergonomics. All workers should also be able to identify and report ergonomics issues and primary MSD hazards at their workstations.
- Focus on fitness and wellbeing. Encourage employees to focus on personal fitness and overall wellbeing during their personal time. Advise them to take daily walks to maintain cardiovascular fitness and try at-home workouts to maintain muscle strength and overall fitness.
- Build work hardening schedules for the most physically demanding jobs. Create a work schedule that allows employees to build up to working a full shift for the most physically demanding jobs. Steadily increase the number of hours worked, from 2 hours up to a full shift over the course of several weeks.
Not only can these methods help prevent or reduce the onset on MSDs, but they can help improve product quality, employee efficiency and satisfaction. Help your employees re-acclimate to the physical demands of returning to work and rebuild stamina in the safest way.