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The ergonomics program at Bankers Trust Co. is a prime example of Russ Opferkuch's ability to recognize a potential problem early, analyze it and craft a risk management solution.

The solution essentially was two-fold: acquiring the right equipment and making sure it was used properly.

And the results are apparent in many ways, but none more dramatic than the case of one Bankers Trust employee who had already had carpal tunnel surgery on one wrist and was awaiting surgery on the other when the ergonomics program was implemented.

Ultimately, surgery on the employee's second wrist wasn't needed after the company applied its standard ergonomic fix at her work station.

Now, employees thank him in the hall for fixing their workstations, Mr. Opferkuch said. "So you get feedback in a lot of ways from people."

Overall, claims are down. After facing more than 100 claims tied to ergonomic issues in 1995, Bankers Trust had about 60 last year, noted Antonina Basile, assistant vp in the risk management group.

Mr. Opferkuch, Bankers Trust vp for corporate risk and insurance, initiated the ergonomics program in 1993. Just from his reading and the bank's limited repetitive motion injury claims experience, he anticipated that if nothing was done, over time Bankers Trust would experience a problem.

While the bank had experienced only a few claims to that point, risk management wanted to get ahead of the issue.

"We didn't have too many claims, but Russ knew that it was coming," said Therese Walker, workers compensation and claims consultant at Bankers Trust.

"He basically comes from a safety background, so his goal is 'How do you be at work and not get hurt? " according to Ms. Walker.

The ergonomics issue "was one he thought we should invest some resources in, and he really ran with that initiative," said Douglas Hoffman, managing director of corporate risk at Bankers Trust and Mr. Opferkuch's direct superior.

While Mr. Hoffman was involved with some aspects of the ergonomics project, "for the most part Russ has designed it and run with it as his own."

Mr. Opferkuch said he had received questions internally about whether ergonomics was something Bankers Trust should address to mitigate losses.

Recognizing the company's extensive use of computers created potential exposures, minimizing losses was an important consideration.

There was a bigger concern, however. "We wanted to keep our people at work," the risk manager said.

"Employee productivity was the No. 1 issue," he said.

"Our employees are Bankers Trust," Mr. Opferkuch said. "Our biggest asset is our employees, and it's important to us that they remain productive."

In the absence of federal guidelines or rules on the matter, Mr. Opferkuch said he thinks Bankers Trust took a "pretty aggressive stance" on ergonomic issues.

"There are no formal standards that are accepted by all parties at this point," Mr. Opferkuch said. But as workplace injuries accumulate, "if you don't take some sort of approach, then you're losing ground," he said.

Not surprisingly, "like everything else at BT, this was a team effort," according to Mr. Opferkuch.

He might have initiated the program, but to make it effective it was necessary to have the involvement of parties from throughout the company.

True to the Bankers Trust "team" approach, the company formed an ergonomics committee that included not just representatives of corporate risk management, but also such areas as human resources, medical, building management, furniture and design management and technology resources.

With the group's concurrence, the company moved forward with a program that involves making sure all new workstation installations are sufficiently adjustable to meet ergonomic concerns and conducting immediate reviews of the workstations of employees who file workers comp claims.

It also involves a constant effort to meet with high-frequency users of typing equipment, computers and similar office equipment to ensure they are familiar with ergonomic issues and the need to adjust their workstations properly and adopt proper ergonomic postures.

In the absence of any established standards, Bankers Trust had to develop appropriate measures and guidelines on its own. The task force determined early on that a lot of the equipment on the market touted as "ergonomically correct" really wasn't, according to Mr. Opferkuch.

And, it realized that by its very nature, ergonomics doesn't lend itself to one-size-fits-all solutions.

The task force looked at chairs, workstations, computer screens and the like in the context of entire systems. It established standards for what constituted "ergonomically correct," and any vendor providing office equipment would have to meet those standards.

The task force also realized that if a chair, for example, can be adjusted to be ergonomically correct, the user must be educated as to how to adjust it properly.

Ultimately, risk management took a two-phase approach to implementing the ergonomics program, Mr. Opferkuch said. The first was "mass implementation," he said. "Our goal was to have phase one meet the needs of 95% of our employee population."

For those few employees for whom the "standard fix" didn't adequately improve the situation, risk management had a "phase two" that brought in an ergonomics consultant to study the employees' situations and make recommendations.

"We're finding that this involves far less than 5% of our people," Mr. Opferkuch said.

When the company sets up a new work area or installs new equipment, Ms. Walker or a consultant visits the employee to ensure it is set up properly. "Training of the individual is key on this," Mr. Opferkuch said. "Giving them an appropriate desk is not enough."

More broad-based training is done through a video outlining proper postures and the correct way to set up one's workstation. The video was developed in-house, with assistance from the then-workers comp insurer, Zurich Insurance Co.

"What we asked Zurich to do was in lieu of paying for inspections to pay for these training videos," Mr. Opferkuch said, an approach that reflects his safety-oriented philosophy.

Mr. Opferkuch emphasizes appropriate procedures over inspections.

The video includes the standard FBI copyright notice at the beginning-another risk management move meant to avoid potential liability.

"We're being aggressive, but we don't want to add any additional risk to ourselves by being aggressive," the risk manager said. Should other companies copy the tape and the Bankers Trust method and later experience workplace illness problems, Mr. Opferkuch didn't want Bankers Trust exposed to liability issues.

"You can be sued for anything today," according to the risk manager.

The video is used when a group of employees is moving to a new area while their area is being renovated. It's set up in a conference room for a few days prior to the employees' move, and they're asked to watch it before going to their new workstations.

Risk management also developed a workstation safety handout, a document that outlines the dos and don'ts of proper workstation position and posture, along with the signs of repetitive motion disorder and tips for avoiding it, all confined to two sides of an 81/2-by-11-inch sheet.

"Our goal was that this could only be one page because if it was more than one page, it wasn't appropriate," according to Mr. Opferkuch.

Mr. Opferkuch also prompted a change in company policy for ordering ergonomic office furniture and equipment. Now, attempts to order equipment to address ergonomic concerns bypass the normal purchasing process and instead are directed to risk management for attention.

Risk management then can make sure only appropriate equipment is used. The policy also allows Mr. Opferkuch's group to provide immediate attention to workers facing potential injuries and to better monitor the success of efforts to correct the problem.

The next step will be to appoint ergonomics contact people by group or by floor, Mr. Opferkuch said. "The intent would be that if you have a problem, you would go to them."

The contacts will then determine whether an individual matter should be brought to risk management's attention.

The risk manager said he also is studying whether a similar approach is appropriate for non-U.S. locations.

"In many respects the current U.K. regulations require that you do more than current U.S. efforts," according to Mr. Opferkuch.

The ergonomics issue has become a European Community-wide concern as well, the risk manager said.

"But in any case, the ultimate concern is the productivity of the employee," he said.