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Sizing Up Injuries

Efforts are ongoing to size up and nail down strain and sprain injuries in the Canadian forest industry.

By Janine Davidge

At the end of a regular shift, an equipment operator steps down from his feller buncher. Failing to maintain a three-point contact with the machine in dismount, he falls to the ground and in doing so overextends the ligaments in his foot. He is left with a badly sprained ankle.

Meanwhile, at a nearby sawmill, a worker spends all day standing, using the muscles in his arms and shoulders to transfer 6x6 timbers off the greenchain and onto a lift. Months of fatigue from the same repetitive movement take a toll on the muscles in his arms. His shoulders have become so sore he can no longer do the job without pain. Further assessment reveals a strain to the shoulder muscles.

A plywood mill worker bends to reach two five-gallon pails of oil to carry for use in mill machinery. On a platform, she must overextend her back muscles to reach below her feet, increasing the stress on her lower back. The awkward position and increased force result in a "pulled" lower back muscle, a strain caused by improper heavy lifting.

These type of injuries happen on an all too regular basis in the forest industry. Illustrating this, statistics showing the nature of injuries to workers in logging, veneer/ply wood and sawmill firms across all of Ontario put sprain and strain injuries in the lead category, accounting for half of all injuries to forestry workers, with more than half of those in the veneer/plywood sector.

And while there may be variations from province to province, these type of injuries are clearly a problem right across the country. The above scenarios are just three examples of sprain and strain injuries that can occur on the job in forestry.

Strains involve the tearing of muscle tissue and can vary in severity depending on how serious the tear. Sprains involve damage to ligaments and usually require a longer recovery time. The term "strains and sprains" is often used as a catch-all phrase to categorize a vast array of work-related musculoskeletal injuries. These include acute soft-tissue injuries often resulting from a single traumatic event, such as a slip and fall accident, and the more chronic, sometimes cumulative injuries involving soft-tissue or nerve damage that develop over time, such as Repetitive Strain Injuries and Cumulative Trauma Disorders.

Workplace statistics show the nature of injuries to workers in veneer/plywood and sawmill companies across Ontario put strain and sprain injuries in the lead category, accounting for half of all injuries.

They don't make the lead story in evening newscasts or the front page of the morning paper, but these so-called "minor injuries" account for half of all lost-time workers' compensation claims in Canada's workplaces. The costs add up to millions of dollars in lost revenue each year and take an untold emotional cost on injured workers and their families.

"Strains and sprains are starting to get a lot of attention," says Peg Sherzinger, an ergonomist with Ontario's Ministry of Labour. Sherzinger has 12 years experience in ergonomics, a field dedicated to shaping workplace design to fit its workers for an optimum level of health and safety. "We're starting to see a change from a reactive approach to strain and sprain injuries to a more proactive approach with more focus on prevention," she says.

Preventing strain and sprain injuries means first identifying the risk factors associated with the injury and taking steps to eliminate or reduce the risk. "There are some proven factors linked to these injuries now," says Sherzinger. The risk of strains and sprains due to slips and falls on the job can be reduced greatly by controlling factors such as step height, the presence of properly placed grab bars, maintenance of a clean, obstruction-free work environment and proper lighting to ensure enough light and reduce sources of glare.

For jobs that involve manual materials handling, heavy lifting and the use of mechanical equipment and tools in the forest industry, minimizing the risk of strains and sprains is a little more complicated and may require control of one or many elements. "For a seated worker who has the job of pulling boards from a conveyor table the risk of musculoskeletal injury would depend on factors like the hand position and grip, the frequency of handling and height of the table, with the optimum zone anywhere from mid-thigh to chest height," says Sherzinger.

Engaging in repetitive motions in cold temperatures or being exposed to vibration either inside a vehicle or from a hand tool can also increase the risk of injury because both reduce blood flow, which increases the risk of muscle fatigue and strain.

Often it is the repetitive element in work tasks that creates the situation of highest risk for musculoskeletal injuries. According to the latest Workplace Safety and Insurance Board statistics, repetitive strain injuries tripled from 1984 to 1995, making it the leading cause of musculoskeletal injuries on the job. "These problems tend to come across over a period of time in jobs that involve repetitive work that requires forceful motion, extremes of joint motion, static or awkward postures," says Sherzinger. Ergonomic solutions to reduce or eliminate risk factors for strain and sprain injuries can involve replacing poorly designed equipment or machinery with newer, more user-friendly designs or investing in automated equipment for some high risk repetitive tasks. It can mean implementing the use of lift tables or changing the whole layout of the workplace.

Efforts are underway to shed more light on the causes of and solutions for strain and sprain injuries in the mills. The Ontario Forestry Safe Workplace Association has undertaken an in-depth study of risk factors with five volunteer mill operations.

Ron Carscadden of ErgoNorth, a private ergonomic consulting firm in North Bay, Ontario believes it is the cost element and the fact that the return on the investment is not always immediate that keep many companies from solving ergonomic problems.

"It takes time-it may take a year, or longer-to see the results of reduced injury in a company's cost outlay," he says. But this is not always the case.

"Sometimes just rotating or moving workers so that they are doing work with a different set of muscles can make a difference," says Bernie Stockermans, a consultant trainer with the Ontario Forestry Safe Workplace Association.

Occupational health nurse Liette Girard has seen the Columbia Forest Products veneer/plywood mill in Rutherglen, Ontario through a few ergonomic advances that weigh in on both sides of the investment scale. "It's a hard sell at the start-because it can be quite expensive," she says. "In the end, though, the outcome is well worth it ."

In recent years the mill has acquired a cross feeder and a splicer, two new machines that have considerably reduced the amount of twisting and reaching required of workers. Last year the mill incorporated a job rotation scheme that has workers switch positions with other workers once every one or two hours. Most recently the mill has introduced sit and stand stools that allow workers to vary the position from which they work. Girard says the efforts have made a noticeable difference in the mill. "We get fewer complaints from workers with pain in their shoulders, arms, wrists and lower back from the repetitive twisting and reaching movements.

"With the new machinery, workers don't have to go to the end of the line to get sheets of veneer, the machine automatically places them in the right position," she adds. "This saves time and allows them to feed more into the machine ."

"We're starting to see more use of lift tables and that sort of thing in manual materials handling and in heavy lifting," says Sherzinger, who adds another noticeable improvement she has seen is the practice of job rotation in a number of lumber grading positions.

So far, BC and Saskatchewan are the only provinces with legislation regulating ergonomic requirements in the workplace to address some of the hazards associated with musculoskeletal injuries. However, one recent report suggests the federal government is looking at amending Part 2 of the Canada Labour Code, which covers occupational health and safety, allowing the development of ergonomic standards and regulations.

Efforts are underway to shed more light on the causes of and solutions for preventing strain and sprain injuries in forestry workers. The Ontario Forestry Safe Workplace Association (OFSWA) has undertaken an in-depth study of strain and sprain risk factors in five volunteer firms within the high-risk veneer/plywood sector. Ergonomists and onsite occupational health nurses will assist OFSWA in the study, the results of which will determine the kind of training and prevention programs needed to address the problem of strains and sprains in veneer/plywood manufacturing.

"Depending on what areas of risk the study uncovers, we may be looking at one or many programs that address specific hazard areas for strains and sprains in veneer/plywood," says OFSWA program developer John Murray. Because the injuries are so diverse, the solutions will vary with the industry and even among firms in the same industry. In the long term, the association hopes to adapt the program(s) that are developed for this sector to address the problem of strains and sprains in other sectors.

"Strains and sprains are something we've all heard about, know about, and see-but it hasn't been something that has gotten a lot of focus," says OFSWAconsultant trainer Bill Calder. "With this study perhaps it will get addressed ."

This article was originally published in The Log, a publication of the Ontario Forestry Safe Workplace Association and is reprinted with the permission of the association.

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This page last modified on Tuesday, February 17, 2004