Ergonomic injuries, which include many musculoskeletal disorders and repetitive strain injuries, account for an enormous portion of total injuries and associated costs to employers across America. A third of all workplace injuries fall into the category of ergonomic injuries, which places a cost burden of some $20 billion on employers nationwide—and that's on top of the indirect costs that come from absenteeism, presenteeism, low morale, and chronic pain, which costs employers over $635 billion per year. With MSDs rates and claims expected to increase in the coming year by as much as 16%, it's essential that employers take the issue of ergonomic injuries and pain seriously.
What is an ergonomic injury?
Generally, ergonomic injuries are injuries caused by factors stemming from an individual's body mechanics, posture, and muscle exertions in relationship to their workspace and their equipment. A workspace can be anything from a home office to a care center to a workshop to a manufacturing floor, and virtually all types of equipment carry ergonomic factors that can affect an employee's safety and ability to do their job. Ergonomic injuries can be acute (occurring as a result of a single incident or impetus) or chronic, and individuals can experience pain or discomfort for months or years before an “injury” occurs. For that reason, it's better to think of ergonomic injuries as encompassing a wide range of specific disorders and symptoms.
In the regulatory world, “ergonomic injuries” are broadly referred to as “musculoskeletal disorders” (MSDs), and this is the preferred terminology used by OSHA and NIOSH.
How do employers deal with ergonomic injuries?
While safety leaders have many options when it comes to preventing and treating ergonomic pain and injuries, some manufacturers have led the way in implementing innovative solutions that treat all facets of the issue.
At 15 manufacturing sites, the company implemented a combination of advanced risk detection, manual pain-relief therapies, body mechanics training, and pre-shift conditioning and mobility programs. As a result, the company saw its percentage of workers' comp claims among the total workforce fall dramatically from 6.8% before the new safety programming to less than 1%, saving the company upwards of $3 million during the program period.
What are the most common types of ergonomic injuries?
Ergonomic injuries and MSDs take many forms, but there are a few that occur often enough to merit specific focus, especially among industrial and manufacturing employees.
1) Lower back pain
Virtually every adult in America has probably experienced lower back pain at some point, whether work-related or otherwise. For employees in manufacturing, industry, shipping, and other high-activity roles, lower back pain can be debilitating, capable of going from a minor nuisance to a major injury without warning. Estimates place the average cost of a single claim of lower back pain or a serious lower back injury between $40,000 and $80,000 in direct costs. Lower back pain and injuries can occur as a result of excessive exertion, poor mechanics, fatigue, and equipment that doesn't fit the worker's body.
2) Carpal tunnel syndrome
Also common among office employees, Carpal tunnel syndrome (or CTS) affects a significant portion of the workforce each year in manufacturing and industrial settings as well. It occurs when the muscles and tendons in the wrist are inflamed from overuse and poor mechanics, causing them to swell and put pressure on the median nerve. Many people first experience CTS as tingling or numbness in the fingers and hand, which can progress to pain and weakness in those muscles. CTS is generally more common in women than in men, but all people are at risk of developing it without ergonomic intervention, especially workers whose jobs require constant hand and wrist movements. OSHA estimates that the average cost of a single CTS claim amounts to over $28,000, plus indirect costs.
3) Neck and shoulder injuries
The neck and shoulders are particularly vulnerable to ergonomic injuries, and can affect employees in many industries. Neck injuries stem from many factors, including long periods spent looking up or down or poor posture while working. Likewise, shoulder injuries can occur when an employee is required to lift a heavy weight above their head or hold one or both arms above the head for long periods. Constant elevation of the arms and shoulders is a frequent contributor to MSDs in industrial workers.
A broad term that describes inflammation to the tendons, which are the thick, fibrous tissues that connect muscle to bone throughout the human body. Though it may sound less damaging than other acute injuries, tendinitis can make work impossible and cause significant pain, whether experienced in the arms, hips, or legs. It's most common among employees whose jobs require significant physical exertion. Claims related to inflammation can cost employers more than $30,000 per claim, according to OSHA.
5) Tennis elbow
Also known as epicondylitis, tennis elbow refers to pain or inflammation that occurs in the outer portion of the arm where the tricep connects to the elbow joint. It takes its name from a sports injury, but epicondylitis can also affect employees in industries that require physical exertion. It usually occurs in the employee's dominant arm, and treatment can cost upwards of $80,000.
How can employers prevent ergonomic injuries and MSDs?
The best thing that employers can do to keep their workers from suffering ergonomic injuries investing in proactive safety measures that include a strong focus on ergonomics. Proper body mechanics and good posture are some of the best tools you can give your employees. Just as important is the work environment, and thorough examinations can revealergonomic risks and hazards before they cause claims. Combined with hands-on pain relief, enhanced workplace monitoring, and analysis of the available data, employers can choose interventions that tackle ergonomic injuries and pain at the source. With proper planning, assessments, and interventions—including training and technology support—ergonomic injuries can be eliminated, or at least significantly reduced, by a factor of 50% or more each year.
By Kevin Lombardo
Courtesy of DORN Blog
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