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Ergonomics can be a simple, low-cost solution to pricy workers comp expenses

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Implementing ergonomic solutions, many of which are free, can help employers increase productivity, reduce lost time injuries and cut workers compensation costs.

There's a misconception among employers that ergonomics is expensive and complicated, said Tom Hilgen, Charlotte, North Carolina-based senior vice president and ergonomics practice leader at Willis North America Inc.

However, with musculoskeletal disorders — also known as ergonomic injuries — driving costs for employers through workers comp, disability, lost productivity and group health, “it's more costly not to implement ergonomics,” Mr. Hilgen said. The “solutions are usually immediate, and the return on investment is normally very high.”

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, musculoskeletal disorders such as carpal tunnel syndrome and back pain account for nearly 70 million U.S. physician office visits each year.

Such injuries usually can be linked to an exposure — “they're overreaching, they're bending, they're lifting too high,” Mr. Hilgen said.

Defined as the study of how work environments affect the safety and productivity of employees, ergo-nomics shouldn't be an employer's “response to employee injuries, but something that's part of designing workplaces, work tools and work systems,” said Rachel Michael, Midway, Utah-based senior consultant at Aon Risk Solutions. “We've seen this done much better in manufacturing. And then we see things like health care and office-type workstations really lacking in this planning.”

Since its 2000 ergonomics standard, which was criticized for being costly and vague, was repealed in 2001, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has cited companies for poor ergonomics under its general duty clause that requires employers to keep workplaces free of recognized serious hazards.

“With ergonomics, it's really difficult to ... say, "I understand that if I expose someone to a repetitive reaching or bending task for X amount of time, then I expect to have an injury,'” Ms. Michael said. “Because of the diversity in the human population, we don't know what you come in with, so we can't make specification-based regulations around things like exposure to repetition.”

Cost-effective solutions

Dennis Downing, president and CEO of injury prevention consulting firm Future Industrial Technologies Inc. in Santa Barbara, California, said that while OSHA citations are bad public relations and cost employers “a little money,” it's typically high workers comp costs that motivate employers to invest in ergonomics.

“Every industry is unique, but most ergonomics solutions that we develop and recommend are under $1,000. And many are free — just changes in processes and procedures,” Willis' Mr. Hilgen said.

Investing in ergonomics doesn't necessarily mean re-engineering the workplace, Mr. Downing said. It's often about “teaching people how to use their bodies. It's the most expensive thing they'll ever own, and they don't know how to use it.”

For example, Mr. Downing said airline baggage handlers have to know how to properly lift and bend, since “you can't re-engineer an airplane.”

Even in facilities that are revamped, “we still see people lifting (too high), bending at the waist and twisting incorrectly,” Mr. Downing said. “Part of the problem is, when you can't find a solution to something, you start throwing money at it. "Let's try this or let's buy ergonomics stuff.' (Workers) don't necessarily need new stuff. They just need to know” how to position their bodies and use what they already have.

Every tool, machine, computer monitor, rug and chair that's used by a worker at Greyhound Lines Inc. was “purchased with ergo-nomics and safety in mind,” Bryan Hunt, senior manager of occupational health and safety at the bus transportation firm, said in an email.

Greyhound, which works with Mr. Downing's firm, also focuses “on proper body alignment when lifting to prevent injuries,” Mr. Hunt said. “In the office environment, a misconception is that having a perfect chair will be better for the body. However, individuals need to have proper posture and practice stretching during breaks, which helps strengthen the muscles.”

All employers should encourage workers to move more, experts say. Workers who spend most of the day seated should stand up for at least a few seconds every half hour, they add.

And workers who stand all day “need opportunities to rest their legs,” Mr. Hilgen said. “We have to build in breaks.”

Simply “changing postures” is one way to increase movement in an office setting, Ms. Michael said. “Our chairs have been able to do this for 10, 15 years ... For all the degrees and expertise I have, I spend a lot of time doing chair-adjustment training.”

She added that “a foot rest is one of the cheapest ways to get changes in blood flow.”

Early reporting also is an issue for most employers, Mr. Hilgen said. “The employees are not adequately reporting early symptoms of fatigue and discomfort. And from an employer standpoint, very few companies have an effective and consistent process for responding to early signs of this.

“Pain is a great motivator,” Mr. Hilgen said. “When people are in pain, they're willing to try different things. That's the time when they're interested in receiving ergonomics training.”

But most employers don't realize it's counterproductive to “bring out a catalogue and say, "You pick whatever you think is going to make you feel better and we'll pay for it,'” Ms. Michael said. That's really no different than asking workers to choose their own prescription drugs, since they don't know “what will affect their bodies in a positive way.”

One of the worst things an employer can do is return a previously injured worker to the same workplace or workstation without having made any modifications, experts say.

“To prevent future injuries to that same worker or others,” changes need to be made, Mr. Hilgen said.

He added that ergonomics solutions can reduce the number of lost time injuries and the costs of claims, “but the real bang comes from productivity increases and happy employees,” Mr. Hilgen said. “It's amazing what happy employees can do” for a company.