Ergonomics: How Employers Can Make It a Way of Life in the Workplace
It is challenging for employers to monitor proper ergonomic mechanics for employees while on the job, and when employees are not on the work floor, they might fall back on old habits that increase musculoskeletal strain.
What’s more, musculoskeletal strain builds up over time rather than in a single, immediate injury.
“The process of identifying musculoskeletal risks includes identifying risk in the process and risk in the person. Finding these risks involves several approaches. For example, review of injury logs, review or work processes and equipment, and interviews and observations of employees all help in identifying these risk factors,” said David J. Damico, vice president, senior ergonomics consultant, Marsh Risk Consulting.
Yet monitoring employees for proper ergonomic behaviors is important.
The CDC reports workplace musculoskeletal disorders cost between $45 and $54 billion annually in workers’ compensation, lost wages and lost productivity.
Liberty Mutual, the largest workers’ comp insurance provider in the U.S., reports injuries from lifting, pushing, pulling, holding, carrying or throwing an object cost employers $13.4 billion every year.
Reducing Risk in the Person
When it comes to proper workplace ergonomics, attention focuses on what types of strategies and products companies can use to reduce musculoskeletal risk.
New chairs and other computer accessories claim to help office workers reduce wrist and back strain. In industries like construction and manufacturing, lift assists, wearable technologies and weight restrictions promise ergonomic risk reduction.
“Whether people adhere to it or not, education is empowering,” said Michelle Despres, vice president and national product leader of physical therapy at One Call.
“Lifting mechanics are easy to teach, ideal work zones are easy to understand.”
Enter body mechanics training, a type of worker education program that aims to reduce musculoskeletal risk by teaching workers how to move and lift properly.
Some companies choose to train employees proactively through annual or new employee orientation programs, while others choose to introduce proper body mechanics training retroactively or after an injury occurs.
“A lot of clients will do annual or new employee orientation to teach proper material handling. They’ll do training on tool use and proper use of lift assist and things like that,” said Chris Studebaker, national director of onsite therapy and athletic trainers at Concentra.
“After employees do get injured, it’s not uncommon to go out and have a physical retraining on tasks that originally hurt them.”
To be effective, these training programs often have three elements: education, motivation and reinforcement.
The latter two help employees sustain proper body mechanics and help make reducing ergonomic risk part of their lifestyle.
“It’s not enough to tell someone, ‘don’t reach across the table,’ ” Damico said.
“Every single behavior is motivated … If we’re going to get people to adopt these ergonomic behaviors, we’ve got to understand what people’s motivations are for doing things the way they do them.”
Making Ergonomics a Lifestyle
In order to encourage employees to move in ways that reduce musculoskeletal risks Damico recommended stressing the benefits proper body mechanics has personally and professionally.
“It’s one thing to say, ‘Hey, don’t reach across the table because it puts a lot of strain on your back.’ It’s another thing to say, ‘Hey, aren’t you in a bowling league? You know what, when you reach across that table you put a lot of strain on your lower back. That could potentially, over time, lead to injury. I’d hate for that to ruin your bowling game,’” Damico said.
Experts also suggested employers encourage employees to continue to use proper body mechanics even after they leave the office for the day.
“If you feel physically good while you’re working, and you’re working safely and comfortably, when you leave work, those benefits extend into your personal life,” Despres said.
“Your back doesn’t know whether you’re lifting a 30 pound box at work, a 30 pound baby at home, or a 30 pound ice chest at the beach. It just knows you’re lifting 30 pounds and it’s going to treat you similarly, all things being equal,” Damico added.
“You have to encourage your associates to do the same things we do at work to reduce musculoskeletal risk at home.”
Employee wellness programs can also help workers reduce ergonomic risk by making sure they live an overall healthier lifestyle.
Studies have found that people who are overweight are 15% more likely to sustain musculoskeletal injury, and people who are considered obese are 48% more at risk for injuries, according to a report from Summit Orthopedics.
“The line between employee health and work related injury is a very fuzzy one,” Studebaker said.
“Lifestyle, whether it be obesity, diet, general conditioning, sleep, and stress reduction, are all things that could play a role in increasing an employee’s injury risk.”
Technology May Be the Future of Workplace Ergonomics
Despite increased education surrounding proper body mechanics, some employees may not be able to translate increased education into a sustainable lifestyle change.
“Old habits are hard to break. There’s a reason that quote exists,” said Joey Freeman, CSP, CDT, managing director of risk control at Beecher Carlson.
When this happens, new, wearable technologies may be able to step up by taking some of the same strategies that are used to engineer proper ergonomic processes and applying them to people’s bodies.
“Wearables are pretty cool. There are people doing work with the same technology that is used to create video games that look real,” Despres said.
“These sensors go on all over the body, they capture information, they show movement patterns. There could be individualized assessments that could identify specific joint deficits or movements that could be better.”
“Wearables are pretty cool. There are people doing work with the same technology that is used to create video games that look real.” — Michelle Despres, vice president and national product leader of physical therapy, One Call
Many of these technologies are too new for workers’ compensation professionals to know if they’ll be truly effective, but many say that wearables show a lot of promise in being able to reduce ergonomics risks in the person.
“The jury is still out and I think it’s still early but I think it’s showing some promise,” Freeman said.
“I’ve seen some examples where we’ve had a couple of clients use wearables for a pilot test where a worker would wear something on their belt, for example, that would register the number of times if they bent over at the waist instead of using their knees. At the end of the day, they see their own data and realize that they’re having trouble lifting correctly.”
Being able to view data on their movements specifically can help make body mechanics education programs feel personal, rather than generic for workers, Freeman notes.
“It’s more customized to exactly what they do and I think when that happens, people are more likely to make some adjustments because they realize that, ‘Hey, this is about me. This isn’t just some generic training, and I could probably use something like this,’ ” he said. &