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SANTA MONICA, Calif.-Ergonomics programs are successful when they include employee and management education and involve representatives of many disciplines within a company.
"Our program has been very successful," said Cynthia R. Parks, manager of employment related risk for Atlanta-based Turner Broadcasting System Inc., the parent company of the Cable News Network and the Atlanta Braves. She noted that the program, which has an employee education component and is supervised by a broad-based task force, is especially helpful because it has so many "type-A personality" employees who don't like to take breaks and often work long hours.
"Initially when we started the program, we did see an increase in frequency with employees reporting claims, but we did experience a decrease in severity," she said. Since the program was instituted in 1993, "We have only had three employees that have had surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome. With a workforce of more than 8,000, we are very pleased with those results," she said.
Ms. Parks spoke as part of a panel that discussed effective ergonomic systems at Business Insurance's Fifth Annual Workers Compensation Conference in Santa Monica, Calif., last week.
Even with all the media and regulatory attention heaped on ergonomics over the past few years, a widespread perception persists among the public and management that ergonomic practices are too costly and complicated to implement in the workplace, said Wayne S. Maynard, product director for ergonomics and manufacturing technology services for Liberty Mutual Insurance Co. in Boston, who served as the panel's moderator.
But those practices don't have to be costly or complex and they do reduce injuries, the panelists agreed.
Turner Broadcasting aims to reduce or eliminate injuries through a four-part ergonomics program, which focuses on: workstation analysis, employee educational awareness, medical treatment and working with ergonomics equipment and furniture manufacturers, Ms. Parks said.
The work in those four areas is supervised by a task force that includes employees, medical doctors and personnel from several departments, including risk management, human resources, benefits, and facility managers who order furniture and equipment.
Exposure identification is conducted through general workstation evaluations, periodic employee surveys and specific workstation evaluations for any employee who files a workers comp claim for a cumulative trauma disorder. Job and task analysis is performed by casualty loss control vendors, such as Philadelphia-based Intracorp.
The training and awareness program begins with new employee orientation, Ms. Parks said. New employees learn about various types of cumulative trauma, such as tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome. That can discourage employees from later filing a costly claim for carpal tunnel syndrome when many have a simpler form of tendinitis. They are also given a brochure that has an ergonomics quotient test. Departmental group sessions contain office ergonomics training sessions and exercises.
As for medical treatment, Turner Broadcasting works closely with orthopedic surgeons, hand specialists and occupational health clinics, she said. Those professionals periodically visit the worksite to help them diagnose and treat employees who might visit them with a problem.
Ergonomics equipment such as keyboard trays and ergonomic style chairs are also used, she said. Adjustable workstations are especially vital at CNN, Ms. Parks said, because employees are at the facility around the clock and desks are occupied by different people at different times of the day. Middle managers are held responsible for ensuring their employees take breaks and exercise.
"The key is having vice presidents and presidents of the various divisions sign off on the program," she said. "But mainly you have to enforce it through middle management. You have to train them. You have to hold them accountable for their employees."
At Bankers Trust Co., many of the 15,000 employees are indispensable in the highly specialized positions they fill, said Russell C. Opferkuch, vp of corporate risk and insurance for the New York-based bank. They can't be replaced by temporary workers, and creating a return-to-work program with modified duty is often not an option because the tasks they perform are crucial, Mr. Opferkuch said.
Therefore the company relies on a proactive, preventive ergonomics approach to keep employees working. That includes increasing employee awareness about injury potential.
The idea is to make everyone aware that the injury is caused by something they are likely to be doing more often in the future, such as working on a computer. The problem is not going to go away and is cumulative, so employees have to take more responsibility for managing the problem and fix their habits, such as bad posture, Mr. Opferkuch said.
Educating employees about cumulative injuries initially resulted in increased claims frequency, but it has since dropped back down, Mr. Opferkuch said.
"I think that is to be expected when you make people aware of the fact that those injuries they have could be work related," he said.
Bankers Trust also uses a systemwide approach to ergonomics training. That means the human resources department, the company's medical department, furniture design and construction personnel, building management, technology experts and others participate in training employees and ensuring the environment is conducive to practicing good ergonomics standards.
"We try to do this on a group basis and I think that has been a reason for its effectiveness," Mr. Opferkuch said. "One thing we found is in order for a program to be successful it has to be simple. We won't send a (stock) trader to a two-day training program on ergonomics. Forget it."
Instead the company developed an 11-minute training video and reading material.
"But we try and do it as simple as possible, a one, two, three effort," he said. "One is make sure your chair is correct and show people how to sit correctly in their chair. Two, make sure your keyboard and mouse are correctly positioned. And three, deal with your monitor, and if you do all three of those you should be in pretty good shape," said Mr. Opferkuch.
Teaching employees sound ergonomics principles is important, according to Michelle M. Robertson, senior research manager of the product research group for Herman Miller Inc., a Framingham, Mass.-based market research company.
Case studies of ergonomics systems have found that training and awareness programs work best when they are set up so that the learning process is continuous for employees.
That means establishing a responsive program in which employees know whom they can ask when they have further questions about applying the principals. That shows the company is interested in comprehensive support for ergonomics, which leads to further success.
Herman Miller's research has also found it is important to teach managers how to be responsive when workers come to them for help, said Ms. Robertson. Without that training, she said, managers often feel uncomfortable addressing the issue.
Also speaking on the session panel were: Kimberly Seymour, director of the ergonomic division for RehabWest Inc. in Riverside, Calif.; and Jerry P. Ray, managing consultant for American Risk Consultants Corp. in Oakland, Calif.