Ergonomics is often defined as the study of efficiency in working environments, and particularly that of avoiding injury (especially in the form of musculoskeletal disorders such as hernias, pulled muscles, etc.), and ways in which employers can maximize efficiency and safety. In 2011, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration estimated that 33% of all work injury cases took the form of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).
Given such a high toll, ergonomics is a natural area of study for the oil industry and its engineers, particularly where it relates to the oilfield–where the rubber meets the road, the pipes meet the dirt, and without which profits would not be possible. Yet for many years, oilfield culture has proven resistant to change, due in part to the freewheeling, masculine culture of oilfields, which often prioritizes stiff upper lips and working through pain. After all, oil field workers are known as “roughnecks,” with a near-legendary reputation for courage in the face of danger and adversity.
Yet this is slowly starting to change. While more seasoned roughnecks may wonder if ergonomics can even be applied to the gritty, manual labor of the oilfields, where weather conditions are never ideal, perfect lifts border on the impossible, and shifts are long and exhausting, ergonomists have made inroads by adhering to a few key areas:
- Studying and minimizing risks
- Implementing improved training and education
- Automating technologies which previously required manual control
- Revising administrative procedures
Ergonomists and engineers collect data on and analyze a wide range of physical risks. Often, data comes in the form of self-reported assessments, workers’ logs, workers’ compensation forms, observations, newsletters, job descriptions, and even maintenance records. Needless to say, all information of a personal, medical nature (such as treatment and injury documents or workers’ compensation forms) are not released without specific, written consent on the part of the employee in question.
There are a series of detailed, in-depth documents, equations, and appendices that provide ergonomists a baseline for measuring the adverse effect that specific tasks can have. One example, for instance, is the Washington State, Appendix B Criteria for Analyzing and Reducing MSD Hazards; this appendix analyzes repetitive motions, sustained stress on various parts of the body, repeated impacts, and a host of other factors and variables that are contributing factors to MSDs.
With such data in hand, ergonomists and engineers can begin seeking solutions, starting with altering worker habits and mindsets. For instance, one ergonomist reported that a simple stretching regime, which lasted no longer than twenty minutes, had the desired effect of slashing musculoskeletaldisorders considerably.
Sharing best practices are yet another way of getting ahead of the curve–and staying there. Even simple, oft-repeated techniques, such as lifting with your legs rather than your back, or using your entire body to push/pull, can make a difference–if technique becomes practice, and practice becomes habit. Clearly, prevention, rather than intervention, is king–which is the case in areas as diverse as the oilfield to the government cabinet.
Recently, we’ve seen the automation of areas that previously required manual, human labor. While oilfields may always be labor intensive in one aspect or another, there are various aspects of the trade that can greatly benefit from robotic or mechanical automation. This includes:
- Moving meters of heavy pipe, particularly from lower areas to higher ones
- Automated power slips, which can move without worker interference. Note that manual slips can weigh up to 250 pounds, which can incur a whole host of MSDs and other work-related issues.
Revising administrative procedures to ensure a safe, efficient, and hazard-free workplace. This includes:
- Regular maintenance scheduled (and budgeted for)
- Regular cleaning, to ensure a clean, safe work environment devoid of hazards such as slippery surfaces or toxic waste
- Regular, consistent rotation of workers, especially to avoid excessive fatigue, and thus, accidents
- Sufficient equipment, including work boots with thick soles, cushioned gloves, hard hats, and the like
As is evident, ergonomics is making inroads into all the manner of workplaces, including oilfields. Ergonomics isn’t only limited to those four areas; it is clear that such categories provide only a starting point for this exciting new development.