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Partnership Pushes Industry to Improve Workforce Safety

A primary focus of the Spine Research Institute (SRI) is helping industry understand and prevent workplace injuries. Recently an SRI ergonomics research team collaborated with Caster Connection to measure the physiological risks of pushing and pulling.

An Ohio-based manufacturer of casters and wheels, Caster Connection is an industry advisory partner of the Center for Disruptive Musculoskeletal Innovations (CDMI), a National Science Foundation (NSF) Industry & University Cooperative Research Center. SRI Executive Director William Marras is one of four CDMI Site directors. Last December, SRI was awarded $500,000 from NSF to implement its collaborative research projects.

SRI led a recent CDMI study with Caster Connection, Improvement of Push/Pull Force Estimates Using a Single-Axis Gauge, to understand how common push and pull load testing procedures within manufacturing and industry may put employees at risk of musculoskeletal injury.

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are a major cause of lost work time and the leading cause of disability worldwide, but current treatments for many types of MSDs often are difficult or unsuccessful. Manual material handling (MMH) tasks such as pushing, pulling and lifting typically require forceful exertions. Such exertions may result in back pain or other MSDs. U.S. employers spend about $30 billion each year just to treat employee back pain. According to OSHA, MMH is the principal source of compensable injuries in the American work force, and four out of five of these injuries will affect the lower back.

“Much of the work we do is focused on MSD causal pathways and prevention, especially in the spine,” Marras said. “An understanding of these pathways is the key to helping industry partners prevent disorders from occurring in the workplace.”

Pushing and pulling are common—if not seemingly innocuous—workplace tasks, especially in heavy manufacturing industries.

In 2018, SRI completed a study funded by the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation and published biomechanically determined push/pull risk limits that relate hand forces to the subsequent risk of low back injury in the workplace.

During ergonomics assessments, practitioners often use a single-axis force gauge to measure hand forces required to initiate movement of a stationary object. SRI research indicates these gauges can be imprecise and not accurately account for environmental and human factors, which may cause incorrect assessment of biomechanical risk. Furthermore, task or equipment redesign can be affected negatively by imprecise force readings.

Caster Connection provides casters and wheels for the material handling needs of some of the largest manufacturers in the world. Company President Joe Lyden wants to help their clients reduce injury risk any way they can.

“There is a lot of human element involved in testing push and pull force with handheld gauges,” explained Lyden. “For instance, if you push fast you can get a spike in force that you wouldn’t get if you pushed slower. We worked with SRI to develop a ‘gold standard’ test that better represents actual everyday usage.”                                             

The completed study resulted in recommendations for assessing push/pull forces that improve the accuracy and precision of hand force estimates.

Gary Allread is operations director of SRI’s CDMI research and works closely with industry on a wide variety of workplace injury prevention efforts. He believes this project perfectly exemplifies the CDMI mission. 

“What we found is this push/pull study benefits not only Caster Connection and our other industry partners, but it can be immediately applied by all safety professionals who need to evaluate or design safe MMH tasks,” he said.

SRI is actively seeking new industry members for CDMI. Member companies contribute $40,000 annually for a seat on the advisory board and the ability to direct what research topics the center pursues. To learn more, contact Allread at 614-292-4565 or via email.

The article was originally published in Ohio State University's College of Engineering news.