Mining, Ergonomics & MSDs: An Interview with Jonisha Pollard of NIOSH Mining


Mining Ergonomics Image

At the most recent MSHA TRAM (Training Resources Applied to Mining) conference, I caught a good presentation by Jonisha Pollard covering ergonomic risk factors in mining that lead to musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). I learned much, and figured it would be great information to share here and also realized there would be no one better to share the information (and her expertise) than Ms. Pollard.

I’m happy to say that we were lucky enough to get Ms. Pollard to come talk to us about mining, ergonomics, and MSDs as well as quite a bit about NIOSH Mining in general and some other NIOSH Mining projects. In the interview, which we’ve included below in both written and video formats, Ms. Pollard also tells us where to find a bunch of helpful information, mobile phone apps, and even interactive web-based tools that NIOSH Mining has created to help create safer work conditions for miners in mines throughout the US. If you’re in mining, we think you’ll enjoy and learn from this interview as well as all the resources NIOSH Mining has to offer.

Before we begin, we’d like to thank Jonisha Pollard in particular for her time, knowledge, and expertise, and NIOSH Mining in general for all the good work, including their research on mining safety issues and all the great mining safety information and tools they’re providing.

You can watch & listen to the recorded discussion below. We’ve also typed it all up for you if you’d prefer to read–just click the MORE button if that’s the case.

Finally, know that we’ve included a free Guide to MSHA Training Requirements for you at the bottom of this article.

Introduction with Jonisha Pollard of NIOSH Mining

Convergence Training: Hi, everybody, and good morning. This is Jeff Dalto with Convergence Training back with one of our semi-regular podcast/webcast audiocast series. And today our discussion will be from the world of mining and mining safety; we have a special and cool guest, someone I met at the recent MSHA TRAM conference, and that’s Jonisha Pollard.

Jonisha is the Musculoskeletal Disorders Prevention Team Leader with NIOSH Mining and the CDC, and she’s part of the Workplace Health Branch in the Pittsburgh Mining Research Division.

So we’re excited to have her–I really learned a lot at her presentation recently at MSHA TRAM and I was really excited that she agreed to do this webinar with us as well.

So, with that let me say thanks and hello to Jonisha. Jonisha, thanks for coming on today. How are you?

Jonisha Pollard: Oh, I’m doing great. How about you?

Convergence Training: Doing well–it’s dark, cold, and early here–I’m up early for Pittsburgh time.

Jonisha Pollard: It’s cold but not too dark here.

Convergence Training: Yeah. It’s probably colder there. Well, I wonder if you can tell us, before we get going into the meat of this discussion, which will be on some ergonomic issues in mining, if you could begin by telling us a little about yourself and a little about NIOSH Mining?

Jonisha Pollard: Oh, sure.

I’m Jonisha Pollard, I have a Bachelor’s as well as a Master’s in Biomechanical Engineering from the University of Pittsburgh. I joined while I was working on my Master’s thesis, and I worked on a project aimed at reducing knee injuries in mining.

Then, I became a full-time employee and I also became a Certified Professional Ergonomist (CPE) and I am now the leader of the Musculoskeletal Disorders Prevention team.

So here at NIOSH our mission is really to eliminate mining fatalities, injuries, and illnesses through relevant research and impactful solutions. We have research centers located in Spokane, Washington as well as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and really we work together to attack the top causes of mining injuries and illnesses as well as fatalities.

What Is “Ergonomics?”

Convergence Training: Well, cool. Thanks to you and to everyone on your team for doing good work.

So we’re going to start by talking about ergonomic issues in mining and I wonder if you could start by telling us what ergonomics is?

Jonisha Pollard: Oh, OK.

So ergonomics is the scientific study of human interaction with the work environment. And the overall goal is for us to reduce work-related injuries by adapting the work to the people.

What I like to say is that basically, ergonomics is making the job fit the person instead of expecting a person to tailor him/herself to the job.

So the biggest things that ergonomics considers are physical capabilities but it also considers mental capabilities, fatigue, and things like that as well.

What Are Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSDs)?

Convergence Training: Alright.

And you’re the Musculoskeletal Disorder Prevention team lead, and we’re going to be talking about some musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), so maybe you could explain to us exactly what musculoskeletal disorders are as well before we begin zeroing in.

Jonisha Pollard: So, an MSD is basically an injury or even pain. Because a lot of times we feel pain but we don’t think much of it, even though it’s our body’s first way of telling us something is happening.

It affects our body’s movement system–so our joints, our limbs, our muscles, our nerves, as well as our tendons. So any injury or pain or disorder to those body parts & systems are musculoskeletal disorders, or MSDs.

Common MSDs in Mining

Convergence Training: Alright, easy, great.

So if I’m a miner, and I’m working in mining, what are some commonly experienced MSDs or an MSD I might be likely to experience?

Jonisha Pollard: So the most common MSD in mining is low-back pain, as well as shoulder strains and knee strains.

We see a lot of those–I would say those are the top.

Common Causes of MSDs in Mining

Convergence Training: OK, so what causes those? I guess one way to not have them is to know what’s causing them.

Jonisha Pollard: Yeah, and you know, it’s hard, because a lot of things can cause them.

But in mining, a lot of them are due to repetitive work activities as well as over-exertion.

A repetitive work activity is anything that uses the same muscle groups for a prolonged period. So an example I like to give is if I’m driving a bobcat, and I’m using joysticks, and they decide to rotate me to another job, so I’m not doing that first job too long, and now I go and I am filling bags. But I’m still using the same muscle groups. So while I may be doing a completely different job, I’m still using the same muscle groups, and so that’s still considered repetitive work activities, because the big muscle group that was highly active in the previous activity is not getting a rest.

Another thing is any type of overexertion or overwork. So overwork is sometimes hard to describe. It can be lifting something that’s very heavy, to really torqueing a hand tool. That’s considered forceful work.

Those are some of the top causes for the mining MSDs we see.

Another one is recovering from a potential slip or trip. So if you’ve ever, you know, let’s say climbed a ladder or went down an inclined walkway and you began to slip and you reached out and grabbed a rail, that’s a way to get a really bad shoulder strain. So that’s another MSD cause we commonly see–trying to recover from a potential slip or trip.

Convergence Training: You know, I had not really thought about the fact that when you’re job switching it doesn’t mean you’re muscle-group switching.

Jonisha Pollard: Yeah, and that’s the biggest thing. Job rotation is great for that, but you still need to consider the muscle groups that are active in those jobs and make sure you’re giving those muscle groups a rest.

Ergonomic Risk Factors for MSDs in Mining

Convergence Training: Yeah, good call. OK, cool.

So if those are some common causes of MSDs in mining, could you tell us a little more about ergonomic risk factors in mining in general?

Jonisha Pollard: OK.

So the four main ergonomic risk factors are (1) repetitive work, (2) forceful work, (3) awkward postures, and (4) vibrations.

And, you know, pretty much any posture can be pretty bad. Even if you’re standing in perfect posture, if you do it for too long, then it becomes a static posture, which is bad. And we talk a lot about awkward posture–bending, twisting, and leaning.

One of the biggest is working with your shoulders above your head, or any type of kneeling, or stooped, or squatting posture.

And awkward postures are a problem because we’re forcing our body to do work in postures in which we’re not as powerful as we could be. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to lift up a box when you’re standing on your knees as opposed to when you’re standing on your feet, but your lifting capacity is really reduced when you’re on your knees as opposed to standing up on your feet.

So those are the types of things you really have to look for–the posture you’re using when you’re doing a job that changes how that job affects your body.

Another one is vibration. Vibration affects our body in a lot of different ways. Whole-body vibration can actually lead to back pain, and we get whole-body vibrations through operating equipment as well as standing on vibrating platforms, things like crushers and screens used by a lot of mining sites, and they really do shake quite a bit. So if the operator’s compartment isn’t physically isolated from that equipment, the operator can be exposed to significant levels of whole-body vibration.

Hand-arm vibration is another cause of MSDs, such as when using a vibrating hand tool or even when holding on to an excessively vibrating steering wheel. That can give us a lot of vibration exposure.

Those are really the four main ergonomic risk factors.

Identifying Ergonomic Hazards at a Mine Site

Convergence Training: OK, great.

So, if I’m a miner, and I don’t want to have these kind of MSD problems, what can I do to identify ergonomic hazards at my workplace?

Jonisha Pollard: Well, the first thing you can do is just learn what and where the hazards are.

It’s very important to know what the hazards are in your workplace, and NIOSH has a lot of tools that can help you.

Side note: We’ve included links to helpful NIOSH tools toward the bottom of this article–don’t forget to check them out.

Another thing I like to stress is that you shouldn’t hurt from work. So any time you feel there is pain or tightness or fatigue after performing an activity, ask yourself how you were doing the activity and what might have changed, and see if you can figure out what kind of change might have led to pain or a potential musculoskeletal disorder coming.

We (NIOSH Mining) also have an app for mining ergonomics called ErgoMine. It’s actually an Android application (app) you can download from the Google Play store. And using the app, you’re guided through an ergonomics assessment of your workplace. So you go through and you read and answer the questions, and what’s nice about this is not only do you answer the questions, but the app gives you remedial recommendations. So it helps you figure out “OK, how can I fix this” or “What may have contributed to this hazard being in the workplace?”

So really, education and using the tools available to you is the best thing you can do to help identify these hazards in the workplace.

Mitigating Ergonomic Hazards at a Mine Site

Convergence Training: Alright. So if we’ve now learned how to identify ergonomic hazards, what can that miner do for the next step, in order to mitigate the ergonomic hazards at work?

Jonisha Pollard: So the first thing is to try to figure out what may be leading to the ergonomic hazards.

For example, we were working with an operation and they were manually palletizing these 100-pound bags, but the people who were using them didn’t want to pay for the pallets. So instead of using pallets, where you can stack multiple pallets, they were doing it by hand. And, you know, you shouldn’t lift anything that’s 100 pounds–that’s number one. Number two, you should absolutely not lift it above your shoulder height. And then, you know, we asked them “Why are you moving these 100-pound bags and not using pallets? How does your end user use these bags, because bulk bags are also an option?” So we asked them, and it turns out the end user was just dumping them in a hopper, so really, they could have been selling it as a bulk-bag purchase instead of by these 100-pound bags.

So that’s not the first solution to everything, but in some situations, we have to figure out, “OK, why are we in this situation with this kind of significant hazard?”

Another thing you can do to mitigate injuries is to look at where you’re performing the work. So sometimes, we’re forcing ourselves to be in these awkward postures when we could just move the work somewhere safer to perform it. It’s not always the safest place to work with something if it’s a really tight space or is at an awkward height. So instead of bending over and working on something that’s on the ground, pick it up, put it on something that’s at waist level, and that will really reduce some of your risk factors.

Also, choosing the right tool for the job is important. Sometimes when we’re reviewing the MSHA injury data we see people getting injured because they’re using a tool that’s convenient instead of using a tool that’s actually designed for what they are doing. So that’s also really important.

And asking for help. Not just help in doing the job, because we all know that when it comes to lifting something heavy, it’s way better to use multiple people instead of just yourself, but also asking for help redesigning the job, figuring out what you can do to make the job a little safer. And a lot of times reducing the weight or changing the location of something can really help change a bad posture.

Side Note: NIOSH Mining offers this helpful Job Design: An Effective Strategy for Reducing Back Injuries web page and guide.

Additional Helpful Materials on Ergonomics and MSDs from NIOSH Mining

Convergence Training: OK, good.

So we’ve learned about MSDs and ergonomics, we’ve learned about the common risk factors, we’ve learned ways to identify hazards at work and how to mitigate them, and we’ve already hinted at the fact that NIOSH Mining has a lot of resources to help people with ergonomic issues in mining.

Could you tell us more about those resources that NIOSH Mining offers to help people in the mining industry with these issues?

Jonisha Pollard: Yeah. So we have a lot of, not only tools, but also guides and training documents to help maintain a safe workforce. All of our material is free and you can download it from our website, which is

We also have the ErgoMine app which I mentioned earlier, and that’s one of my favorite tools, along with this very small tool called the Risk Factor Report Card, which is just a card that you print out and leave in different places around the mine site, and in addition to leaving these around offer a collection box, and that offers a great way for people to get engaged. People fill out the Risk Factor Report Card, they offer potential ergonomic risk factors they found in the environment, they explain where it would affect your body, and then they can give you ideas for a redesign or how to change things. One great thing to do is to turn this into a competition or a lottery, awarding prizes based on who submits it—you can pull one from a hat and award a small prize or something like that, but it really is a great way to get people engaged. And that’s a part of our Ergonomics and Risk Factor Awareness Training for Miners.

But there are a lot of tools. There are training products; and we started to do a lot of infographics this year, so they are just one-page fliers you can download and print them out poster-size if you want or standard 8-1/2 inch by 11 inch and hang them in different places and these cover MSDs as well as slips, trips, and falls (which is another thing we’re researching right now).

So we have a lot of tools, materials, and information–all free–you can easily download from our web page.

How Mines Can Collaborate with NIOSH Mining

Convergence Training: OK, great.

I have a follow-up point and then a follow-up question.

We definitely encourage folks to check out the NIOSH Mining webpage, but in addition, I know they have a great Twitter feed. So if anyone wants to follow NIOSH Mining, don’t forget those social media sites.

Side note: NIOSH lists their social media sites here.

So that was my follow-up point, and here’s my follow-up question. We’ve heard a few times in directly talking with employers, you know, “What’s the point in doing all of this?” So in addition to all these web-based tools and resources you have, how often is NIOSH Mining going out into the field, talking with workers and employers, and what’s that process and procedure like?

Jonisha Pollard: We are in the field all the time.

Pretty much on any given day, there’s something from NIOSH Mining in the field. Right now I have two people from my team at a sand mine for a full week. Other branches have people all over. Our research programs span pretty much all aspects of mining, from dusts to toxic substance inhalation, fires and explosions, what we’re doing–MSD prevention, noise, hearing conservation, electrical and mechanical safety, ground control, heat exhaustion. We have a very wide program touching on pretty much every aspect of mining health and safety.

Convergence Training: And how does that happen? Is that something a mining employer requests, or do you just show up one day? What brings NIOSH Mining out to a mine site?

Jonisha Pollard: So we do research plans. So as part of our research projects, we go out to mine sites, and that’s how we learn about the issues, learn how things are done, and that’s where we generate our recommendations. So that’s pretty much how we get to the mine sites.

We really depend on miners being willing to let us come. We don’t force our way into any mine site; we don’t show up and say “We’re NIOSH and we’re here.” We say “Hey, we’re working on this project, would you like to partner with us?” It really is a partnership. We’re learning, and we’re hoping to give back to the mines, too. It’s just a collaboration, what we do when we go to the mines.

Convergence Training: Alright, cool, sounds good.

Yeah, I just did an interview with someone with a similar job, he’s the coordinator of an OSHA SHARP & VPP program out in Oregon.

Jonisha Pollard: Oh wow.

Convergence Training: Alright, cool. So we’ve learned a lot about MSDs and ergonomics in the mining world, we’ve covered identifying and mitigating risks, and so on.

Was there anything about NIOSH Mining, ergonomics, or MSDs that I should have asked but didn’t, or anything else that comes to mind, or any wonderful concluding thought you might have for us?

Additional NIOSH Mining Projects

Jonisha Pollard: I think I touched on most everything. By no means is NIOSH Mining just about MSDs, so I think it’s worthwhile for people in mining to learn about the things that we do, and I really thank you for giving me this opportunity to talk to you a little about MSDs and a little bit about mining and ergonomics and the things we’re doing here, so thank you so much.

Convergence Training: No, no. Thank you. We were really excited to have you and we thank you for taking the time.

I guess in concluding, what’s next for you? What’s your next big project?

Jonisha Pollard: So right now we’re wrapping up a project on slips, trips, and falls prevention for mining. As part of that project, we’re tracking miners’ wear on the outsole of their boots. So we gave them new boots and over time we’ve been tracking how those soles have been worn away. So look forward to that information coming out pretty soon.

Also we’re looking at safety during ingress and egress. So we have a few publications on mobile equipment ingress and egress safety. Specifically, we have a really nice web tool looking at designing safe mobile equipment parking areas because we found that a lot of injuries happen during ingress and egress. So there are a lot of things you can do to make that a lot safer for miners.

And right now we just started working on a project looking at manual materials handling. So as part of that project, we’re looking at developing a web page that would be the house of all things related to mining and manual materials handling.

We are also looking at hand and finger injuries, which are very common when doing manual materials handling in mining.

And soon we’ll be looking at exoskeletons and how they can potentially help us reduce injuries that are associated with overexertion in mining.

So it’s all coming up in the next few years and we’re really excited to get started.

And also we’re looking for mines to work with us, so if anyone is interested, make sure to contact me.

Convergence Training: OK, great, great.

We’ll make sure to let people know how to contact you in the article.

Side note: Here’s the Contact Us information for NIOSH Mining.

That’s all interesting stuff. And you really caught my interest there at the end.

So for those who don’t know, could you tell people what an exoskeleton is?

Jonisha Pollard: Sure. So an exoskeleton does not make you a robot. It is really a tool that is designed to augment the physical capabilities of a human.


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