Injury Prevention

Defending Against Cumulative Trauma

Cumulative Trauma, or CT claims, continue to harm workers and drive up costs. Defending against these claims means reducing, through analytics and engineering, the chance that workers get hurt to begin with.
By: | September 12, 2017 • 6 min read

Repetitive motion, or cumulative trauma injuries, stubbornly persist as generators of workers’ compensation claims and productivity losses year after year. Not only do such injuries harm workers, they can even leave them permanently disabled.

Remedies to these injuries do exist, however. Well-established risk management and safety strategies are known to provide effective relief. Additional risk-reduction opportunities exist for employers with those practices already in place, including the adoption of an expanded, macro view of ergonomics; one that considers how work gets done and the engineering of production processes.

Bill Spiers, VP and risk control practice leader, Southeast, Lockton Companies

Wellness programs are also showing early signs of helping mitigate the injuries that typically stem from the constant repetition of the same motion, sometimes over years.

Statistics show that risk mitigation practices have gradually slowed the overall volume of CT claims, along with mitigating a broader category of injuries that the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration calls “musculoskeletal disorders.”

But several factors continue making repetitive motion injuries — commonly referred to as cumulative trauma claims in California — and musculoskeletal disorders persistent loss drivers.

Today’s younger workers begin taxing their small-muscle groups and motor skills at an early age with the frequent use of modern devices like smartphones and computer tablets. They now show signs of increased strain more typical of an older worker, said Sean McDonald, Workforce Strategies Ergonomics Practice Leader at Marsh Risk Consulting.

Simultaneously, aging workers now have more years of performing very common, repetitive work motions like the twisting, bending and lifting, all of which are known to eventually wear down body parts.

Advertisement




Employers with their eyes on the bottom line who push for increased production are also taxing worker bodies more than before, especially when safety engineering is not properly considered.

“As production goals keep going up, the impact on the human is not always handled very well. So, you are asking more and more of people and you are outpacing any basic ergonomics with the pace of productivity,” McDonald said.

Bill Spiers, VP and risk control practice leader for the Southeast at Lockton Companies, agrees.

“Because of our effort to try and drive production efficiencies, sometimes we forget and leave out the effects that has on the human body,” Spiers said.

Repetitive stress cases, like OSHA’s broader category of musculoskeletal injuries, often present claims payers with challenges less common than when injury causes are easily witnessed and more obvious, as occurs with broken bones or burns, for example.

OSHA’s definition of musculoskeletal disorders includes upper and lower extremity injuries. The disorders impact the muscles, nerves, ligaments, tendons, and blood vessels with ailments ranging from carpal tunnel syndrome and tendinitis to shoulder and lower-back strains.

Rooting Out the Cause

Because repetitive motion or musculoskeletal injuries often occur over time, their cause is commonly rife with uncertainty. It is challenging to separate out the impacts of aging or harmful activities workers may engage in away from the workplace from legitimate, work-related causes.

About 85 percent of lower-back pain is idiopathic, lacking a specific or known cause, said Wayne Maynard, product director, ergonomics, at Liberty Mutual Risk Control Services. That makes pinpointing a work-related cause challenging and can leave employers paying for ailments they did not contribute to.

The claims are also highly susceptible to manipulation or outright fraud.

California, due to its legal environment, for example, has experienced growth in suspicious, highly-litigated and expensive cumulative-trauma claims filed after workers leave their jobs.

In 2016, the California’s Workers’ Compensation Insurance Rating Bureau reported that cumulative trauma claims, as a percentage of lost-time claims, more than doubled over the past decade. They comprised about 18 percent of the state’s indemnity cases during 2015.

Nationwide, however, there is good news in a Liberty Mutual Safety Index that annually ranks the top 10 causes of serious workplace injuries. It has shown a gradual, long-term decline in the nation’s total spend for cumulative trauma and musculoskeletal-type injuries.

“Because of our effort to try and drive production efficiencies, sometimes we forget and leave out the effects that has on the human body.” — Bill Spiers, VP and risk control practice leader, Southeast, Lockton Companies

Injury prevention programs, ergonomics, return-to-work efforts and the automation of tasks all contribute to the long-term decline.

That is good news because the costs can be steep.

Advertisement




OSHA reported in 2014 that work-related musculoskeletal disorders account for one of every three dollars spent on workers’ comp. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates they account for 34 percent of all lost workdays.

OSHA’s report states that the disorders cost employers $20 billion annually in direct workers’ comp costs and up to five times that in indirect costs. The injuries also take a personal toll, with workers suffering and unable to work or live full personal lives.

Out-Engineer the Risk

A first line of defense after a cumulative trauma or musculoskeletal claim occurs requires reviewing the injured person’s workplace to learn whether the injury could have been avoided, and what measures will prevent a similar future occurrence, said consultant Barry D. Bloom, managing principal at The bdb Group.

“That is just general good risk management, but it really applies on any injurious exposure that is costly or physically incapacitating because we need as many people as can be to be employed and productive,” Bloom said.

Among other measures for managing a cumulative trauma claim, employers will want to obtain a high-quality, evidence-based medical assessment to help determine whether the injury is work related.

“Because in cumulative trauma, it’s not just that you have been exposed to something,” Bloom explained.

“In other words, it’s not just that you have used a mouse, for example, but you have to also prove that the exposure caused the injury. You can’t do that without a good quality medical assessment.”

Sophisticated employers don’t wait to see a repetitive motion claim before working to prevent them, Bloom added. The range of practices they adopt include evaluating how work is accomplished and what tasks they might automate.

That has led to practices like designing warehouse-type food stores so that workers move entire pallets of products into place with forklifts rather than manually stocking shelves. Other industries have increased the use of robotics.

Barry D. Bloom, managing principal, The bdb Group

Designing processes or engineering in solutions to eliminate risk is now a primary ergonomics practice that has expanded beyond the mere physical workstation adjustments for individual workers that were the focus of earlier ergonomics efforts.

Engineering risk out of jobs and processes, or at least greatly reducing it, is the goal of workplace ergonomics evaluations, McDonald said.

Administrative controls, like job rotations reducing the hours workers are exposed to stressful tasks, also play a role.

“But in our opinion there is no substitute for good design initially and engineering controls after a process has been implemented,” McDonald said.

“Administrative controls would fall last on the hierarchy on how you want to address these things.”

Engineering is critical because you can’t rely on human behavior to consistently perform motions in a safe manner, Spiers added.

“What you never want to do is depend on behavior,” he said.

Advertisement




Although more outcomes data is necessary, combining safety and ergonomics with wellness programs also shows great potential to mitigate repetitive motion and musculoskeletal claims, Maynard said. That is particularly true with the comorbidities that impact claims severity.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity,” Maynard said

“And there is good data that fitness and overall health have a relationship with musculoskeletal types of disorders.”

Ergonomic assessments are not the only line of defense, Spiers said. Post-offer employment testing also has an important role.

“I laugh because we seem to leave out (employee) selection,” he said.

Making sure that a hire can physically perform the job is an often overlooked, yet obvious line of defense, Spiers said. &

Roberto Ceniceros is senior editor at Risk & Insurance® and chair of the National Workers' Compensation and Disability Conference® & Expo. He can be reached at [email protected] Read more of his columns and features.

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Risk Management

The Profession

Pinnacle Entertainment’s VP of enterprise risk management says he’s inspired by Disney’s approach to risk management.
By: | November 1, 2017 • 4 min read

R&I: What was your first job?

Bus boy at a fine dining restaurant.

R&I: How did you come to work in this industry?

I sent a résumé to Harrah’s Entertainment on a whim. It took over 30 hours of interviewing to get that job, but it was well worth it.

R&I: If the world has a modern hero, who is it and why?

Advertisement




The Chinese citizen (never positively identified) who stood in front of a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989. That kind of courage is undeniable, and that image is unforgettable. I hope we can all be that passionate about something at least once in our lives.

R&I: What emerging commercial risk most concerns you?

Cyber risk, but more narrowly, cyber-extortion. I think state sponsored bad actors are getting more and more sophisticated, and the risk is that they find a way to control entire systems.

R&I: What is the riskiest activity you ever engaged in?

Training and breaking horses. When I was in high school, I worked on a lot of farms. I did everything from building fences to putting up hay. It was during this time that I found I had a knack for horses. They would tolerate me getting real close, so it was natural I started working more and more with them.

Eventually, I was putting a saddle on a few and before I knew it I was in that saddle riding a horse that had never been ridden before.

I admit I had some nervous moments, but I was never thrown off. It taught me that developing genuine trust early is very important and is needed by all involved. Nothing of any real value happens without it.

R&I: What about this work do you find the most fulfilling or rewarding?

Advertisement




Setting very aggressive goals and then meeting and exceeding those goals with a team. Sharing team victories is the ultimate reward.

R&I: What is the most unusual/interesting place you have ever visited?

Disney World. The sheer size of the place is awe inspiring. And everything works like a finely tuned clock.

There is a reason that hospitality companies send their people there to be trained on guest service. Disney World does it better than anyone else.

As a hospitality executive, I always learn something new whenever I am there.

James Cunningham, vice president, enterprise risk management, Pinnacle Entertainment, Inc.

The risks that Disney World faces are very similar to mine — on a much larger scale. They are complex and across the board. From liability for the millions of people they host as their guests each year, to the physical location of the park, to their vendor partnerships; their approach to risk management has been and continues to be innovative and a model that I learn from and I think there are lessons there for everybody.

R&I: What is the risk management community doing right?

We are doing a much better job of getting involved in a meaningful way in our daily operations and demonstrating genuine value to our organizations.

R&I: What could the risk management community be doing a better job of?

Educating and promoting the career with young people.

R&I: What have you accomplished that you are proudest of?

Being able to tell the Pinnacle story. It’s a great one and it wasn’t being told. I believe that the insurance markets now understand who we are and what we stand for.

R&I: Who is your mentor and why?

Advertisement




John Matthews, who is now retired, formerly with Aon and Caesar’s Palace. John is an exceptional leader who demonstrated the value of putting a top-shelf team together and then letting them do their best work. I model my management style after him.

R&I: What is your favorite book or movie?

I read mostly biographies and autobiographies. I like to read how successful people became successful by overcoming their own obstacles. Jay Leno, Jack Welch, Bill Harrah, etc. I also enjoyed the book and movie “Money Ball.”

R&I: What is your favorite drink?

Ice water when it’s hot, coffee when it’s cold, and an adult beverage when it’s called for.

R&I: What does your family think you do?

In my family, I’m the “Safety Geek.”

R&I:  What’s your favorite restaurant?

Vegas is a world-class restaurant town. No matter what you are hungry for, you can find it here. I have a few favorites that are my “go-to’s,” depending on the mood and who I am with.

If you’re in town, you should try to have at least one meal off the strip. For that, I would suggest you get reservations (you’ll need them) at Herbs and Rye. It’s a great little restaurant that is always lively. The food is tremendous, and the service is always on point. They make hand-crafted cocktails that are amazing.

My favorite Mexican restaurant is Lindo Michoacan. There are three in town, and I prefer the one in Henderson as it has the best view of the valley. For seafood, you can never go wrong with Joe’s in Caesar’s Palace.




Katie Dwyer is an associate editor at Risk & Insurance®. She can be reached at [email protected]