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Proper equipment just first step to improve office ergonomics, reduce injuries

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DALLAS — With a proper training program, ergonomic solutions can improve worker safety and prevent musculoskeletal disorders.

Accounting for nearly 70 million physician office visits in the United States each year, musculoskeletal disorders pose high costs for employers through workers compensation, disability, lost productivity and increased health care costs, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Musculoskeletal disorders accounted for 33% of all injury and illness cases in 2013, down from 34% in 2012, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports.

The incidence rate for musculoskeletal disorders, which include carpal tunnel syndrome and back pain, occurred at a rate of 35.8 per 10,000 full-time workers in 2013, down from 37.4 in 2012, the bureau said.

Despite that decrease, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has been issuing more citations to further reduce the incidence of musculoskeletal disorders, David Michaels, Washington-based assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, said during the American Society of Safety Engineers' Safety 2015 Professional Development Conference & Exposition held June 7-10 in Dallas.

OSHA in 2001 imposed a controversial standard for workplace ergonomics, the study of workplace environment and its effects on worker safety and productivity, that was criticized for being costly and too vague to prevent musculoskeletal injuries.

In the absence of a current standard, OSHA has been citing companies for poor ergonomics under its general duty clause, which says employers must keep workplaces free of recognized serious hazards, Mr. Michaels said.

Experts also say ergonomics is more than just physical solutions.

There's a perception that ergonomics is just about equipment, but the “work stations and furniture we give our employees are relatively meaningless and ineffective without proper training,” said Wayne Maynard, product director of workers compensation, ergonomics and tribology at Liberty Mutual Holding Co. Inc. in Hopkinton, Massachusetts.

Mr. Maynard said providing workers with “adjustable chairs, sit-stand workstations and flexible work spaces ... without the proper training” isn't beneficial for employers or workers.

The proper training should include “how it physically can help you as an employee, when to adjust it, all those types of guidelines,” he said.

Observers also recommend that employers enlist ergonomics experts to evaluate workers — in person or virtually — to assess their needs.

Ergonomics is personal, so there's no one-size-fits-all approach, said David Barry, Overland Park, Kansas-based senior vice president and national technical director of casualty risk control at Willis North America Inc.

Trendy equipment isn't for everyone, experts say, noting that exercise balls used in some offices can cause more problems than solutions — including injuries that would be covered under workers comp.

Mr. Barry said expensive equipment also might not be necessary, since “ergonomics is about designing the work environment to fit the employees' needs.”

“Some of the fancy chairs you see, they might look really neat and they might have a lot of features,” but it needs to be fit for the person using it, he said. “I don't know how many times I've done ergonomic evaluations and seen somebody's very expensive chair that has multiple adjustments. I'll hit a lever on it and it will go up or down, and they'll say, "I had no idea it did that. I've been sitting in this chair for two years.' Just because you have it doesn't mean you were trained to use it.”