Preventable ergonomic injuries account for fully one-third of all workplace injuries and illnesses. As a result, U.S. employers pay more than $15 billion in workers compensation claims for these injuries every year. In addition, as many as 785,000 lost work days are reported as a result of ergonomic injuries annually. These direct costs may pale in comparison to the indirect costs associated with lost employee productivity and turnover. Ergonomics is defined as; “designing the job, equipment and tools to fit the worker, and fitting the worker to the job.” Of course its important to place the right person in a particular job and making sure they have the right equipment for that job. However, there are other factors to consider in reducing the exposure of your workforce to work related injuries your business experiences. Fortunately, the vast majority of ergonomic related injuries are completely preventable, saving your company significant money and lost work time. The saying; “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” by Benjamin Franklin is as appropriate now as it was in the 1700’s.
The most common work related ergonomic injuries such as, carpal tunnel syndrome, back injuries and tendinitis are classified as musculoskeletal disorders (MSD’s) or cumulative trauma disorders (CTD’s). Regardless of the definition, these are injuries of the muscles, nerves, tendons, ligaments, joints, cartilage and/or spinal discs. The costs associated with these conditions can be overwhelming, not only for the employer, but the employee as well. For example, carpal tunnel syndrome – characterized by pain in the wrist from pressure on a nerve, usually caused by repetitive, frequent, or unsupported wrist movements from an unnatural angle – is the leading cause of lost work time with nearly half of cases resulting in more than 31 days of work lost. For the employee, only 23% of the individuals requiring surgery can return to their previous profession. Nearly 36% of all CTS patients require unlimited medical treatment! Back pain is one of the most common reasons for missed work and is estimated that as many as 80% of the U.S. population will experience back pain at some point in their life.
Fortunately, many of these cases can be prevented with the proper strategy and for a relatively small investment. Creating a prevention-conscious culture will go a long way in building strong participation in your injury prevention program. The idea behind ergonomics is to simply reduce the stressors that contribute to the musculoskeletal and repetitive use injuries. Most people recognize that setting up a workstation ergonomically is important in addition to proper lifting techniques. However, its common to still see secretaries habitually holding the phone against their ear with their shoulder creating neck problems, or assembly workers performing the same movements over and over creating imbalanced muscle patterns that set the stage for injury. Another concern is the chronic and repeated use of over-the-counter pain medications and anti-inflammatory drugs to treat the symptoms of pain resulting from improper ergonomics and imbalanced function. Although this will provide temporary relief, over time this strategy will most certainly lead to a more extensive injury down the road causing further financial loss and lost productivity. The strategy of the continued use of medications for these conditions is severely limited since they only cover-up the symptoms without addressing the underlying cause of the pain and dysfunction.
In order to prevent this scenario, its necessary to create a strategy that encourages and supports employees to look for ways to diminish the stressors in their home and work environment, recognize the signs and symptoms of a problem and understand when it is appropriate to implement passive and active types of self-therapy to help relieve the underlying cause of the problem. Implementing a policy where individuals that perform phone work must utilize a headset, computer users have wrist supports, and cross-training assembly workers to rotate to different stations if possible to reduce the day-to-day repetitive motions they are exposed to.
In the early stages, several self-administered passive and active therapies can have not only a pain relief effect, but a healing effect as well. Nearly all of these injuries will respond favorably to ice therapy, massage, stretching and strengthening exercises. For example, people experiencing carpal tunnel pain will often have tight and sore muscles in the back of the forearm. These tight muscles contribute to the wrist pain by restricting the normal motion of the wrist bones and can be relieved by using light, but firm massage pressure on the affected muscles. Stretching the affected muscles is also an important self-directed therapy that will alleviate the underlying muscle tension. The underlying cause of many cases of back pain can be due to weak core strength. Performing the correct core exercises combined with stretching, massage, manipulation and ice therapy can have tremendous advantages to prevent full blown injuries to the muscles, discs and ligaments. For sure, if someone experiences severe, sharp pain they should consult with a qualified health care provider.
For business leaders that are concerned about the high costs of health care and the recent health care reform legislation, the time is now to develop a comprehensive prevention strategy for the ergonomic injuries that are draining the profitability out of your business.