By Delia E. Treaster, Ph.D., CPE, Ergonomic Technical Advisor
In recognition of National Ergonomics Month, this blog is part one of a two-part series focusing on ergonomics in the workplace
Overexertion injuries cost Ohio employers nearly $134 million and accounted for almost 24% of accepted BWC claims in 2019. An overexertion can occur when you push yourself too hard and work beyond your physical capability. They’re most common in the service and manufacturing industries, but they occur in all private and public sectors.
Often called MSDs (musculoskeletal disorders), many overexertion injuries damage soft tissues in the lower back and shoulders. Soft tissue injuries are infamous for their long recovery time and high probability for re-injury.
Awkward postures and repetitive motions are known risk factors for overexertions, but the most significant risk factor is excessive force. Manual tasks, such as lifting or working overhead, often require high force exertions. If done repeatedly, this kind of work can cause cumulative damage to back and shoulder joints.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has a longstanding recommendation to use engineering and administrative controls as part of a comprehensive ergonomic program to reduce overexertion injuries. This approach is backed by multiple research studies that confirm the role of workplace risk factors in the development of musculoskeletal injuries of the soft tissues.
Engineering controls, which are physical changes that reduce the physical strain on workers’ bodies, are the preferred method for controlling the escalating workers’ compensation costs of overexertion injuries. Reducing or eliminating the physical factors benefits all workers who perform the job. Examples of engineering controls are reducing the weight of the load that the worker lifts or eliminating the manual lift by using a mechanical lifting device such as a hoist.
Where engineering controls are impractical or inadequately reduce the risk, administrative controls such as job rotation, training, or rest breaks, may lower the risk sufficiently to protect an individual worker. However, administrative controls must be diligently maintained to ensure continued protection against MSDs.
Companies often use an ergonomic consultant to conduct ergonomic evaluations of “problem” jobs – those with high rates of injury, defects or turnover – and recommend ergonomic solutions to improve the jobs. This approach allows a company with limited ergonomic expertise to quickly identify fixes for the most problematic jobs. But since outside ergonomists lack the in-depth understanding of the job and knowledge of the company resources and procedures, their recommendations may not be practical or feasible.
A more effective approach, but one requiring more time and greater upfront investment of resources, is to develop an in-house ergonomics team to tackle problem jobs. Comprising both workers and management, such an interdisciplinary team has deep knowledge of the jobs, tools and equipment, workflow, supply chain logistics, and operational constraints such as customer requirements. When given basic ergonomic training that includes an understanding of MSDs, the team can devise effective engineering solutions that reduce physical risk factors while also meeting production demands. Iterative engineering can fine-tune the ergonomic solutions to account for unforeseen factors or changes in the production environment.
One of the largest employers in the world, the U.S. Postal Service, initiated a grassroots ergonomic process in mail processing plants across the United States. The Ergonomic Risk Reduction Process (ERRP) was established in 2003 in response to a confluence of factors, including an aging workforce, escalating musculoskeletal injuries, and rising workers’ compensation costs. Cross-functional teams were formed in-house and trained by an ergonomist. These teams focused on identifying and reducing risk factors of jobs that were known to be high risk for MSDs. Within three years, the Postal Service saw a 19% reduction in MSD rates at plants where ERRP had been ongoing for at least a year. The average cost of the ergonomic interventions was a mere $1700, and when compared to the average cost of $6000 for a WC claim for an MSD, the ROI (return on investment) for ergonomics is obvious.
A BWC ergonomist can help you develop an in-house ergonomics team that can address problem jobs. Reach out to one of our BWC safety consultants or call 1-800-644-6292. Don’t forget to take advantage of our other safety services as well. The Division of Safety and Hygiene offers a wide range of services for all industries at no additional cost to employers, including safety education and training and the BWC safety and video library.