AFT - American Federation of Teachers

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Organizing Around Ergonomics



In addition to helping to prevent workplace injuries, building awareness about ergonomics is an excellent issue around which to organize and build union membership. The following are examples of what unions can do to promote ergonomics in various PSRP job categories.

Computer Users. Union PSRP locals can help their members survive the demands of computer use in several ways. Some PSRP locals have been successful at negotiating contract language that provides users with:

  • Decent workstations with adjustable keyboard trays;
  • Ergonomically designed chairs;
  • Training for office workers on safe computer use; and
  • Eye exams and corrective lenses.

The Los Angeles College Guild, an AFT affiliate, has negotiated a contract that includes some of the most comprehensive computer ergonomics language in the country. The contract includes the following provisions:

  • A joint labor-management technology committee that evaluates new software and guarantees that the end-users have an opportunity to review software before it is purchased.
  • Adequate training on new software.
  • Good workstations for computer users, including adjustable chairs, keyboard trays and other accessories that provide comfort to computer users.
  • Regular eye examinations and free computer glasses, when needed.
  • Ergonomics training.
  • Adequate breaks for employees required to work multiple hours at a computer.

Contact the AFT Health and Safety Program for sample contract language on comprehensive ergonomics for computer users.

Paraprofessionals. There is much work to be done in the future to improve conditions in schools that lead to musculoskeletal conditions. The United Federation of Teachers in New York City has begun the process by educating paraprofessionals about unsafe postures and activities that put them at risk for back injuries. The union also has provided tips to paraprofessionals for handling children with disabilities. Trainers investigated techniques used in hospitals and nursing homes that might be helpful in a school setting. For instance, they explored the use of transfer or "walking" belts with handles that make it easier to transfer and handle students. The Toledo (Ohio) Federation of Teachers has negotiated contract language about the handling of children. This language has helped reduce injuries. Ultimately, unions must work with school districts to get the best kinds of equipment for assisting children with disabilities and to provide training for paraprofessionals so that the school environment is safe for staff and students alike. In regular classrooms, unions work with school districts to get better seating for employees in primary school settings. For instance, stools with wheels and back support may be useful for paraprofessionals who are monitoring children at desks, tables and computers. Floor mats should be available for paraprofessionals who must stand for long periods of time.

Custodians, maintenance workers and groundskeepers. Back injuries, as well as other work-related musculoskeletal disorders, are rampant among custodial, maintenance and groundsworkers. Unions can help reduce injuries by approaching management and asking for worker involvement in equipment selection and purchases. For instance, groundskeepers should be allowed to "try out" any new tractors or mowers to make sure they have easy-to-use controls, comfortable seating, back support, and do not vibrate excessively. Similarly, custodians should be allowed to evaluate different kinds of floor buffers, vacuum cleaners and other equipment, and to make purchase recommendations.

Food Service Workers. The union may be able to help discover low-cost methods for reducing the strain and stress of working in the school kitchen and cafeteria. For instance, the union may be able to get stools so workers can alternate standing and sitting, as well as getting rubber mats for standing. Perhaps employees can have input on how work can be reorganized so that no one has to stand in the same position for prolonged periods of time or perform duties that are repetitive and/or hazardous. The union can make other recommendations to management.

Bus Drivers. The union also may attempt to get bus driver members involved in developing the specifications for new buses. Drivers know what kinds of controls will reduce stress, and they understand how important a good seat is.

The AFT-PSRP Department can provide further information on ergonomics and preventive programs through the AFT-PSRP Occupational Safety and Health Program at 202-393-5674.