Ergonomic injuries and the workplace
Work-related ergonomic injuries can exact a high price from employers and employees in both factory and office environments. Even a few incidents can deal a severe financial blow to small and medium-sized companies. Identifying potential risks and developing and implementing an effective ergonomics program can help reduce injuries and costs.
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In today's manufacturing environment, on-the-job injury-related costs are consuming profits at an alarming rate. This is especially true for work-related ergonomic injuries.
The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported 867,766 cases of work-related strains, sprains, and back injuries in 2003. Although the number of ergonomic injuries has declined over the past 10 years, the costs associated with these injuries continue to escalate. Depending on the severity of a particular injury, it is not uncommon for those who require corrective surgery to incur workers' compensation costs—medical, lost-time benefits, disability ratings, and potential litigation—that easily total $100,000 or more per injury. Only a few such costly injuries can have a severe impact on small or medium-sized company's profitability and even affect its ability to remain in business.
In its 2000 Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses, the BLS reported that skilled workers who suffered musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) injuries lost an average of 19 workdays. Of all injuries resulting in lost workdays, 257,900 were ergonomically related, and 44 percent were caused by bodily movements or exertion.
Along with their employers' costs, affected workers also pay a price for ergonomic injuries. This cost ranges from losing a few days of normal activity to the loss of livelihood in the most severe injuries.
MSDs often are grouped with other ergonomic injury classifications known as repetitive strain injuries (RSIs) and cumulative trauma disorders (CTDs). All of these injury types can have a significant impact on both employer and employee finances.
The risk of injury is not limited to the plant floor. An increasing number of MSDs are related office personnel's extended use of computer keyboards.
Some of the more obvious factors contributing to the rising costs of workplace ergonomic injuries are significant increases in the medical treatment costs and the requirements of various state workers' compensation laws.
Some less obvious contributing factors are the aging of the American work force and the poor physical condition of many employees. An increase in obesity and the lack of regular exercise required to strengthen the body prevail in today's work force.
Another less obvious factor is the greater cost employees now are paying for employer-provided health care plans—higher deductibles and other out-of-pocket costs. Many employees who once claimed treatment for their strains and sprains through their employer-sponsored health plans have learned that they can get first dollarcoverage by filing workers' compensation claims instead. Without exception, state workers' compensation laws are more lenient to the workers' claims than are most health plans.
When temporary disability payments, potential permanent disability payments, and vocational loss of earnings payments are factored in, the total cost of an ergonomic injury can be staggering. Employers that incur too many injury costs can find it extremely difficult to secure affordable workers' compensation insurance.
Reducing Injuries and Costs
To reduce work-related ergonomic injuries and the associated costs, companies must develop and implement effective and ongoing ergonomics programs. A successful ergonomics program adapts job tasks to fit the worker and eliminates work conditions that put harmful strain on the worker's body. When performing their jobs, many employees often incorporate activities that exceed their physical limitations, such as extended reaching, repetitive stooping and bending, and overhead lifting. Over time these activities take a toll on the physically fit, young employee, and more so on an older worker in poor physical condition.
To identify potential risk factors, employers should look for the following conditions:
- Lengthy periods of repetitive activity.
- Inadequate rest periods between lengthy, repetitive tasks.
- Awkward work positions (extended reaching and overhead work).
- Repetitive heavy lifting and forceful movement.
- Excessive vibration.
- Uncomfortable environmental conditions and a stressful work organization.
These potential risk factors must be eliminated or significantly modified. In many cases, the workers themselves can suggest ways to modify the tasks that will eliminate or reduce the ergonomic stresses. These remedies do not always have to be expensive. Simply modifying a worktable's height, rearranging access to parts, or rotating employees who perform repetitive tasks are but a few ways to minimize certain ergonomic stresses.
A key element in a successful ergonomics program is training both the employee and the supervisor. The training must focus on the stresses of the work performed and the safe techniques for avoiding ergonomic as well as other injuries. The training must be repeated on a regular basis and the employee's work activity monitored to ensure that safe work practices are being followed.
Employees and supervisors must understand and be convinced that getting the job done properly also includes doing the work safely and avoiding injury. It is of no value to a business to get a large order out the door and then spend all of the profit—and then some—on work injuries.
An effective ergonomics program also must be evaluated regularly to make sure it remains effective. Again, the affected workers are excellent sources of information for keeping a program fine-tuned.
The old saying that you can pay me now or pay me later certainly applies to ergonomic injuries in the workplace. Paying to prevent them is just good business.