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ERGONOMIC CHANGES COMFORT SAN JOSE

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The city of San Jose is pocketing big savings by decreasing the number of workplace injuries with ergonomic changes.

A municipality that self-insures its workers compensation exposure, San Jose knew that beyond keeping workers safe and comfortable, an ergonomics program could bring down its workers comp costs. In 1994, the city set out to meet both those goals.

Earlier this year, San Jose's success was recognized by the Center for Office Technology's first Outstanding Office Ergonomics Award. The COT, an association of high-tech manufacturers and corporate users of computer equipment, named the city's program tops in the public sector category, with United Services Automobile Assn. taking the private sector award (see story, page 26).

A number of ergonomic changes have dramatically reduced workplace injuries and saved San Jose millions. In fiscal year 1996-97, back injuries among city workers fell by 57.3% while wrist injuries dropped 25.9% compared with the year before.

The ergonomics program and a health and safety program have together saved the city $5.7 million in workers comp costs since 1995. It is expected to produce additional savings of $4.2 million over the next three to five years.

Apart from the savings, the ergonomics efforts by the city have helped workers like Bernadette Cava stay on the job. Ms. Cava, an analyst with the city, suffers from tendinitis and degenerative disks in her neck. Years of keyboard work caused the injuries and she continues to deal with chronic pain.

Ms. Cava said changes to her workstation, many made before the formal ergonomics program was under way, have made it possible for her to stay at her job while keeping her injuries from worsening.

"The keyboard I went to is a split keyboard," she said, explaining that it is divided into sections that force movements that are not as stressful on joints and muscles. A track ball instead of a mouse makes it easier to avoid repetitive arm movements when navigating the computer screen.

Her chair provides "better back support" than an off-the-shelf desk chair, Ms. Cava said, and its adjustable arms give her the ability to change positions. Other workstation adjustments have included basic moves like making sure her computer monitor is at the proper height.

Without the changes, Ms. Cava said, "I would not be able to work."

Now a member of the city's ergonomics team, Ms. Cava pushed for ergonomic changes for San Jose employees "for a long time," she said. In the mid-1990s, the city began taking steps to make those changes.

With help from experts at the University of California at San Francisco and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, the city has developed an ergonomics program that focuses on educating and training employees to work comfortably, avoiding strains and repetitive motion injuries.

The city focused much of its ergonomic efforts on hands and backs, two areas that see a lot of strain because of the amount of typing, lifting and other movements by city workers.

Back injuries are "our largest injury area," said Marynka Rojas, safety and ergonomics manager for the city. One of the techniques to reduce those kinds of injuries by workers in the streets, fire, traffic and other departments is the city's Biomechanical Imprinting Program, she said.

Under the program, a job is analyzed over a number of days to identify high-risk activities. Custodians, for example, are watched as they sweep, mop and perform other tasks. A training session is created to show those workers how to work differently to reduce the risk of injuries. Aside from work-specific instruction, the six-hour course gives basic information on proper body mechanics, posture and breathing.

As a result of the city's efforts, the workers comp cost of back injuries is falling. Those costs amounted to $2.5 million in fiscal year 1996-97 and fell to $2 million in fiscal 1997-98. The amounts are estimated costs for the life of claims.

Another program, called the Motion Based Ergonomics Retraining Program, teaches employees who use computers proper typing techniques that can reduce repetitive motion disorders.

The program is based on techniques similar to those taught to pianists. Participants, generally employees referred through the city's workers comp program, are taught typing techniques that use larger muscle groups such as the upper arm to reduce the number of repeated hand and wrist movements.

The program is a series of weekly 90-minute meetings for 11 weeks. Apart from the keyboard techniques, participants attend ergonomics lectures, are evaluated by a doctor and are taught stretching and other exercises. Each employee's workstation is evaluated and ergonomic changes are made if needed.