Ergonomic solutions are allowing employers to address workers’ musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) with simple workplace interventions that make a big difference. Employers are modifying equipment, changing work methods and purchasing new tools or devices to assist in the production process. Making changes in the workplace helps reduce physical demands, eliminate awkward or unnecessary movements, lower injury rates and reduce employee turnover—ultimately resulting in lower costs and higher productivity.
The trick is staying on top of ergonomic trends. It’s not easy because the field is evolving quickly. This article outlines current trends and today’s resources for employers.
The High Cost of MSDs
Many workers suffer from MSDs, which are defined as an injury, damage, or disorder of the joints. Strains and sprains are some of the most-highly reported MSDs. However, many office tasks can result in repetitive-stress injuries, which are debilitating in their own way.
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), MSDs can be caused by work-related activities like lifting heavy items, bending, reaching overhead, pushing and pulling heavy loads, working in awkward body postures, and performing tasks repetitively.
A 2013 study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) found that MSDs accounted for one-third of days-away-from-work cases. OSHA has estimated that MSDs cost businesses $15 to $20 billion each year in workers’ comp expenses. In addition, the Institutes of Medicine estimate that the total annual economic burden resulting from workplace MSDs is as much as $54 billion.
These high costs suggest that up-front investment in prevention of MSDs is an important step for any business. Calculating return-on-investment for ergonomic improvements can vary from industry to industry. But there are a number of ways to calculate the ROI for these types of investments.
One example of an ROI Calculator:
Another factor that will help ROI is increased productivity brought on by better ergonomics. “This is the most quantitative and straightforward data that’s available out there,” said Deepesh Desai, CPE, ergonomics engineer with Humantech Inc. “Time savings is the best way to cost-justify.”
Awareness of ergonomic issues is changing—at one point, heavy industries such as construction and manufacturing got the majority of attention. But as these industries started addressing MSDs, claims went down and then other industries became aware that they, too, need to address ergonomics in the workplace. Health care and the long-haul trucking industry are two areas that are currently seeing better implementation of ergonomic practices. Solutions for office workers is also a hot topic.
ROI - The Washington State Study
A widely-cited study by the Washington State Department of Labor & Industry showed that the benefit of improved ergonomics in an office environment led to reduction in absenteeism and errors, while also increasing productivity.
The study lists 250 examples where ergonomics improvement created cost savings or some other type of benefit for the company. For example, an engineering office made changes to office furniture, lighting, and organization, and saw a 20 percent increase in productivity. The office estimated the changes paid back the investment in less than 11 months.
In another case, a newspaper brought in adjustable work stations and adjustable chairs, and reduced medical costs and temporary disability claims by 80 percent. The change also reduced reported repetitive motion disorders from 50 to 19 in one year’s time.
Regulatory Action - Limited But Still Possible
In 2000, after years of studying the issue, OSHA unveiled the Ergonomics Program Standard for businesses in the US, excluding the construction industry. The new regulations encountered strong opposition from business and political interests, and was repealed by the second Bush Administration in 2001, two months after it went into effect.
However, OSHA has remained active in pushing for ergonomic improvement as a way to protect the health and safety of workers. The agency has published voluntary guidelines containing recommendations and case studies for specific industries.
In addition, OSHA still has regulatory power to penalize companies that are careless with safety and ergonomic processes. If employers are ruled to be ignoring evidence of safety hazards—including ergonomic hazards, the company can be cited for a violation of OSHA’s General Duty Clause.
Strategies for Ergonomic Improvment
There are different best practices for different industries, but some things are universal. For example, analysis, education, and communication are three fundamental areas that can help when establishing good ergonomic policies.
Analysis of OSHA 300 reports can give employers valuable insight to what jobs are seeing the most injuries, and a deeper dive into the numbers can be even more helpful. When do the injuries occur? Are they associated with a specific location or an area of a plant or office? Are certain types of employees reporting injuries more often? Using the report information to review the workstation, the job, and the way employees are trained can be examined for clues as to what the underlying cause may be.
Training and education are also crucially important. Educating workers on good posture, how to use tools properly, how to adjust workstations and chairs, how often to take breaks—this kind of training can have a dramatic impact on reducing or preventing MSDs.
Communication, on the other hand, can include the opportunity for employees to give important feedback about how their jobs are affecting their physical health, and how company efforts are working in the area of ergonomics. A team approach is always helpful in injury prevention efforts.
Experts in ergonomics are also exploring new ways of thinking about workers; for example, the concept of an “industrial athlete” has become useful in some cases.
Just as professional sports teams place a priority on making sure athletes are able to perform at a high level, some companies are beginning to look at how to maintain peak performance from their workers. This can include encouraging overall fitness and wellness programs, stretching on the job, and making sure that any injury, even minor ones, are evaluated carefully and treated promptly.
It’s a different way of approaching employee safety and performance, but one that can result in buy-in from workers as well.
Talk to the Experts
OSHA has many resources for helping employers create an ergonomics process for their workplace. In addition, Marsh & McLennan Agency loss prevention specialists can consult with employers and bring years of experience in ergonomics to bear on issues for specific workplaces and situations.