Ergowatch gives Canadian software a lift

A software program designed to assess and reduce the risk of back injuries in industrial settings is being transformed into a broader tool that will also be able to evaluate the risk of repetitive stress injuries in workers’ hands and arms.

The Ergowatch software developed at the University of Waterloo has been available for a little more than a year, but there hasn’t been an aggressive marketing campaign. In spite of that, “we’ve sold copies all over the world,” says Richard Wells, head of Ergonomics and Safety Consulting Services (ESCS), a university-based cost recovery unit where academic and workplace expertise intersect.

What makes the ergonomic measurement and analysis system distinctive is that can assess the load or impact of a task – the combination of weight that is lifted and cumulative time spent in a position or posture, linking that with a worker’s physical characteristics (size, age, sex) to predict potential pain and injury. The software was developed to quantify the physical demands associated with work processes in the automotive manufacturing sector.

Ergowatch can be used to assess the physical demands of a job relative to legislative guidelines or to prioritize ergonomics projects by comparing data from different ergonomics improvement projects.

“One of the unique aspects is that it looks at risk over a whole day,” says Wells. It does more than measure a worker’s ability to lift a heavy weight or indicate the safest way of lifting a given weight. “That doesn’t tell you whether you’re going to be injured,” because risk increases with fatigue.

In addition to calculating forces that accumulate over time, Ergowatch assesses the relative risk of low back injury by using an epidemiological database developed from a series of ESCS research and consulting projects spanning more than a decade.

Since the early 1990s, Wells and his academic colleagues have worked with businesses in the automotive sector – General Motors and two automotive parts manufacturers, the Woodbridge Group and A.G. Simpson – as well as the Canadian Auto Workers. They focused on ergonomic challenges associated with the automotive manufacturing industry, looking at the relationship between posture or position, weight lifted, repetition of motion and low back injuries and pain. That research provided a theoretical and empirical research base for the spinal models and risk analysis contained in the software.

The software package can be used by managers, union representatives, engineers, health and safety representatives, teachers and researchers.

Work led by Wells and ESCS colleagues Robert Norman, Stu McGill and Mardy Frazer “found the relationship between loads and reporting of low back pain,” he says.

The software package incorporates four tools, including 4D Watbak, a biomechanical modelling tool developed by the ESCS unit at Waterloo. It looks at the forces that are applied over the three spatial dimensions, as well as time, calculating acute and cumulative loads at major joints of the body, particularly the spine.

Ergowatch also includes three other commonly used tools that look at different aspects of physical stress and strain. One is a program for calculating physical demand analysis (PDA), sometimes called physical demands description (PDD). That is based on a checklist required by workers’ compensation boards to determine what an injured employee can safely do when returning to work.

Another application, known as the Snook tool, offers guidelines for acceptable loads when lifting, pushing, pulling or carrying weights based on statistical analysis of workers, broken down by physical characteristics. For example, it can identify a weight that 50, 75 or 90 per cent of a given group of workers can manage.

The last program is based on recommended load limits developed by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health in the United States.

The current version of Ergowatch, which focuses on back strain, can be applied to a wide variety of work environments where lifting is an issue, from automotive assembly plants to hospitals. A module that can be applied to repetitive stresses on the hands and arms should be completed by the end of the year, says Wells. An updated version of Ergowatch that is being developed will allow users to import video and photographs for analysis.

HEALNet, which was part of the federal National Centres of Excellence program, gave ESCS seed funding for software development as part of its mandate to support commercialization of health and workplace research. ESCS is a non-profit organization based at the university, so the money generated by software sales is reinvested in development, Wells says.

For information about Ergowatch, contact ESCS at (519) 886-5488.

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