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Brenda Quinones found out how eager the United Services Automobile Assn. is to accommodate employees with special needs.

Ms. Quinones, a customer account professional, happened to ask during a training session after being hired earlier this year whether it would be suitable for her to stand at times while she worked. Injuries from a car accident left her with chronic pain from herniated discs in the neck and sciatic nerve damage. She also suffers from carpal tunnel syndrome.

Her question led to the design of a sit/stand workstation that allows her to push a button that raises her desk so she can comfortably work while standing.

Her chair, she said, "looks like a pilot's chair," with a hydraulic system that allows it to change positions.

To alleviate the discomfort from carpal tunnel syndrome, "I had someone from ergonomics teach me to use the mouse with my left hand," she said. Her keyboard was redesigned to reduce awkward movements while typing.

Because of these and other ergonomic changes to her work space, Ms. Quinones said the daily pain she suffers has been greatly reduced. "The difference," she said, "is phenomenal."

USAA's ergonomics program is bringing down workers compensation costs, but it hasn't been a quick fix.

When the San Antonio-based insurer and financial services company began its ergonomics push in the early 1990s, it aggressively sought to identify employees who were experiencing some pain or discomfort in the workplace. As a result, incidence rates began to rise, and there was a spike in the company's workers compensation costs.

Since 1992, USAA's ergonomics specialists have conducted about 7,200 one-on-one ergonomics consultations with workers. More than 20,000 employees have undergone ergonomics training, and more than 38,000 adjustments have been made to their workstations in an effort to alleviate or prevent discomfort or injury.

The company's ergonomics program has been awarded the first Outstanding Office Ergonomics Award for a private sector company by the Center for Office Technology. The City of San Jose, Calif., won the public sector award from the association (see story, page 27).

The effort continues, and the payoff has begun, according to Hank Austin, manager of safety/environmental affairs at USAA.

But as expected, USAA's numbers got worse before they got better.

Without revealing specific figures, Mr. Austin said USAA has seen a "classic bell curve" pattern in musculoskeletal disorder claims since it began attacking those injuries through ergonomic changes. As the injuries were uncovered, the number of claims rose to a peak in 1995. In 1997, the number of claims was about half the 1995 number.

Even though the number of claims increased, early intervention had an impact on medical costs, which have fallen as fewer injuries progress to the point where they need surgery. That also means there are fewer lost-time work days. Claims payouts on musculoskeletal disorders have dropped to 48% of workers comp claims in 1997 from 66% in 1992.

The decrease is important for USAA, a company that carries a large retention as part of its workers comp coverage, which is written by a unit of The Hartford Financial Services Group Inc.

Apart from falling comp costs, USAA's ergonomics effort has led to other benefits. Improved morale is among them.

Just the idea that their employer makes the effort to keep them comfortable and safe means a lot to workers, according to Mr. Austin.

"The thing that really has had an impact," he said, is the "hands-on approach and caring attitude

of the company. And the fact that they are spending so much time and effort for the employees."

USAA's ergonomics program has evolved since the late 1980s when management decided it would make a full-time, dedicated effort to reduce the number of injuries through ergonomic changes. It gained momentum in the early 1990s when the company began to aggressively seek ways to make workers more comfortable and bring down injury claims.

USAA describes its program as proactive, designed to prevent injuries with ergonomic changes instead of just making changes after injuries occur.

In an operation that involves about 20,000 employees who work in typical office jobs, a mail center that processes about 400,000 pieces of mail a day, a large commercial printing facility and other enterprises, USAA knew it had to focus on easing the strain of repetitive movements and making sure employees were properly fitted to their work stations.

They go about it in a number of ways.

"We have two software usability labs that test all new software," Mr. Austin noted. The labs, he explained, "engineer out any key combinations that put the hands in awkward positions over time."

The company designed its own work tools when it found no commercial products were adequate. One example is the large-handled staple puller that USAA designed when it found the standard pinch-type removers and small pullers shaped like letter openers were difficult for some workers to use. USAA converted the small pullers by adding a larger wooden handle that makes the tool easier to use. Several hundred are distributed to workers each year.

USAA also has designed reading and writing stands, document holders for computer terminals and other objects to make computer use more comfortable.

The company works with furniture manufacturers to build desks or other components to fit the work styles of USAA employees. In some cases, USAA has worked with manufacturers to create a workstation component or an entire workstation to meet an individual employee's needs.