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CINCINNATI-A computerized system developed by Ford Motor Co. to settle Occupational Safety and Health Administrations record-keeping violations may one day be used to help the automaker target ergonomics improvements.
But for now, the multimillion-dollar Health Data Analysis system primarily is used to calculate how much musculoskeletal disorders associated with poor workplace ergonomics are costing the Dearborn, Mich.-based employer.
For example, the system tracks not only medical treatment costs but also the number of days an employee is away from work due to injury. It also links every visit to the company's onsite occupational clinics to the payroll system to allow analysis of injury trends by department and job.
In addition, the system can calculate a cost-per-case by adding together an individual's injury costs and workers compensation benefit payments.
And to ensure ongoing compliance with OSHA record-keeping requirements, the system uses "OSHA logic" to automatically report specific injuries by medical code.
The data collection starts the minute the injured employee arrives at the onsite medical department seeking treatment and continues until he or she returns to full capacity, explained Susan T. Pastula, an epidemiologist at Ford.
Eventually, "what comes out are single-plant or company-wide analyses," she said during a session at a conference, "Managing Ergonomics in the 1990s," co-sponsored by the American Automobile Manufacturers Assn. and the Center for Office Technology June 17-20 in Cincinnati. The Alexandria, Va.-based COT is an association of employers and manufacturers dedicated to improving the office working environment and promoting informed approaches to safety and health issues associated with computers and office technology.
For example, when she asked the system to determine the total cost of Ford's 1995 ergonomics injuries, she found they amounted to $15 million, or 41% of Ford's total occupational injury costs for that year.
Ms. Pastula selected 1995 as an example because the data has sufficiently matured now that about 80% of the workers compensation cases filed that year have been resolved.
Many workers compensation cases take up to four or five years to close, she explained.
When she asked the system to further break down the data by body part, it found that $7.2 million of those costs were associated with arm and/or shoulder injuries.
It also found the most expensive injuries were those of the head and neck, while lower back and hip injuries resulted in the most lost work time.
The system also found that back sprains and strains make up 30% of the ergonomics-related disorders at Ford, added Gordon R. Reeve, another corporate epidemiologist who spoke at the conference.
The system, which cost Ford "in the millions" was developed in response to OSHA record-keeping violations that resulted in fines totaling some $1.5 million in 1989, Mr. Reeve explained.
"We had a tremendous legal exposure because data collection was highly variable," he said.
Medical directors at each of Ford's 55 production facilities and warehouses, which employ some 100,000 workers collectively, kept records separately with no uniform system to standardize the data, he explained.
Also complicating data collection is the fact that these plants span 16 states, each with different workers comp laws.
Fortunately, with the "OSHA logic" component of the new system, the treating physicians in Ford's occupational injury clinics don't have to know themselves what injuries need to be reported and when, according to Mr. Reeve.
Physicians now report patient information using a personal computer and pulling up a template that gives them prompts to insert information. When that template is saved, the system can automatically send a copy of the report to the person responsible for keeping the OSHA 200 logs.
"OSHA logic is driven by medical codes so that there is less error," he explained.
For example, if a doctor uses any one of eight medical "codes" to describe an injury, it will automatically be reported on the company's OSHA 200 log, he said.
The next step in the data collection process will be to apply the findings to target ergonomics improvements in Ford plants where they will have the most impact, Mr. Reeve said.
With data input beginning in 1990, Ford's Health Data Analysis system will have a wealth of ergonomics data.
Currently the automaker's ergonomics committees-made up of plant management and representatives of the United Auto Workers union-are often pressured politically to make safety improvements.
But this "system makes prioritizing easier" and more pragmatic, he said. "Now the product manager or department engineering manager can use this to show finance managers where they need to make investments in loss prevention."