When it comes to workplace injuries, we often think of dangerous occupations like construction. But even office workers are at risk. Cut your potential losses with ergonomics.
The workplace can be a dangerous place. Employees can get hurt in even the most innocuous of environments and in silent ways that often escape attention. The assembly line worker repeating the same motion, the retailer moving heavy objects, the office worker in front of a computer all day – all share the risk of “musculoskeletal disorders” (MSDs) that develop over time. Carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis, shoulder and elbow problems, and back injuries are among the most common.
Such disorders accounted for one-third of all injuries that caused employee absenteeism in 2011, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and required an average recuperation time of 11 days compared to 8 days for all other injuries.1 The highest rate of injury was in businesses with 50-249 employees but smaller and larger companies also had their share.2
The effects of MSDs can be costly, with lost wages and potentially chronic injuries for employees, and absenteeism, lost productivity and workers’ compensation claims for employers. But you can take proactive measures to help minimize MSDs at your workplace.
Ergonomics is the science of designing the workplace for the best fit between people and their work environment. Ergonomics can help to reduce employee fatigue and discomfort while making the workplace safer, more productive and more efficient.
If this seems like an expensive proposition, it doesn’t need to be.
“There’s a perception that ergonomics can be costly,” said Judy Sehnal, an ergonomics specialist with The Hartford, “but, in most cases, there are always simple, practical solutions that offer improvements.”
Here’s a lost-cost, common-sense approach to bringing ergonomics into your workplace.
1. Know the risks.
MSDs can be caused by a number of factors, including:
- Repetitive tasks
- Awkward postures, such as repeatedly reaching above shoulder height, kneeling, squatting, leaning over a counter or twisting while lifting
- Holding the same posture for long periods of time
- Exerting excessive force to lift heavy objects or push or pull heavy loads
2. Identify the hazards in your workplace.
The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) website is a great resource on ergonomic risks for specific industries. The best source of insight, though, is within your own workplace. Review any injuries reported in your business’s recent past. Talk to your employees for their perspectives. Survey your workplace with an objective eye: What are your employees doing and how they are they doing it?
“What looks uncomfortable probably is, and could lead to problems later,” Judy said.
She gives the example of a warehouse staffer who needs to repeatedly bend over to pick a shipment up off the floor and then reach overhead to place it on a high shelf. Such awkward postures and repetitive motions, particularly over a long period of time, can be a setup for injury.
3. Problem solve.
With a little creative problem solving and an understanding of ergonomic principles, you and your employees may be able to come up with low-cost solutions for many of the risks you identify. For instance, lifting equipment could help the warehouse employee in our example, but a stack of pallets can also be used to raise the product and reduce bending. Overhead reaching can be reduced by using a lower shelf.
These common-sense recommendations apply to most workplaces:
- Provide ample work space for the employee’s range of motion, including leg room
- Adjust chairs and desk surfaces to fit the individual
- Place heavy or frequently used items on shelving between waist and shoulder height
- Stress the importance of good posture at the computer
- Promote smart lifting techniques – bending at the knees and lifting with the legs rather than bending over and twisting.
- Encourage occasional breaks from repetitive tasks and static postures. Simple stretching exercises can also help.
4. Train your employees.
The success of your program is largely dependent on your employees doing the right thing, so be sure they understand the ergonomic adjustments that apply to them and why they’re important. If they’ve been a part of the solution from the beginning, this part should be easy. Just know that you may need to issue reminders now and then. After all, habits aren’t always easy to change.
5. Encourage early reporting of problems.
Make sure your employees feel comfortable coming forward with symptoms early on. It’s the only way you can make ergonomic adjustments before a problem develops and becomes bigger and more costly – for you and your employee.
6. Continuously look for improvement opportunities.
Monitor the effectiveness of your program and make adjustments as needed. Consider ergonomics when you introduce new equipment to the workplace or make changes to your business operations or procedures. Think continuous improvement.
7. Ask for help.
Ergonomics doesn’t have to be rocket science. There’s a lot you and your staff can figure out on your own. However, ergonomic specialists can be a helpful resource. Many insurance companies such as The Hartford offer ergonomic consultations to their policyholders as part of their workers’ compensation or disability insurance contract or on a fee basis. And if you’re an existing customer of The Hartford, you’ll find a wealth of information to help your ergonomics program along on The Hartford’s Loss Control website.
1 Nonfatal Occupational Injuries and Illnesses Requiring Days Away From Work, 2011, U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, November 9, 2012
2 Workplace Injury and Illness Summary, U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, October 25, 2012