Injury Prevention

Time to Prioritize Proactive Ergonomics

Ergonomics safety programs reduce injuries and help organizations reach operational goals.
By: | October 6, 2016 • 5 min read

According to a recent benchmarking study conducted by Aon, which collected data from 150 companies who attended either the ASSE annual Safety conference or the Michigan Safety Conference this year, 27 percent of companies have no one designated to handle ergonomics in the workplace, and only 13 percent were conducting formal risk assessments of their ergonomic exposures.

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“That was a surprising result, because when you look at our casualty analytics, ergonomic injuries are up in the top two or three in terms of severity and cost,” said Scott Smith, director of ergonomics at Aon.

Ergonomics is frequently overlooked by executives, and there a few reasons why. The lagging indicators that many organizations use to track frequency, type and cost of on-the-job injuries often fail to show the connection between those injuries and their effect on productivity. The safety metrics are isolated.

As a result, improving safety is largely seen as a way to save expenses, rather than as an integral part of an overall strategy to improve efficiency and boost performance.

“Ergonomic injuries are up in the top two or three in terms of severity and cost.” — Scott Smith, Director of Ergonomics, Aon

Lagging data can also be incongruent with workers’ comp and health care data, which often exist in separate silos. Musculoskeletal workers’ comp claims illustrate that disconnect. Such soft tissue injuries can appear to have nothing to do with safety because the safety team is focused on tracking OSHA-recordable events.

Rick Spencer,

Rick Spencer, head of prevention and optimization, Briotix

A shoulder strain that occurs after repeatedly reaching too far for a tool or a keyboard, for example, would not fall into that category, and thus may be overlooked by safety metrics.

“Most companies haven’t gone through the process of looking at workers’ comp and health care data together to show how injuries are related and how a more comprehensive approach can bring costs down for both,” said Rick Spencer, Head of Prevention and Optimization at Briotix, an ergonomics and injury prevention consulting firm. “Execs need to see that data to support a new initiative.”

Without these pieces fitting together to show the whole picture, senior decision-makers are unlikely to be convinced that ergonomics plays a central role in reducing injury, cutting costs, and improving operational performance.

Reactive vs. Proactive Approach

As a result, many companies take a reactive approach to ergonomics injuries, only evaluating or changing the ergonomic design of a workspace after an employee gets hurt.

This approach “misses the boat,” Smith said. “You know where you’ve gone, but you have no idea where you’re going.”

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To get C-suite support, safety professionals and risk managers have to pitch proactive ergonomics not as a safety initiative, but as a business tool that aligns with specific operational goals and metrics.

In manufacturing, for example, “they have metrics around improving throughput, reducing costs, reducing cycle times, and they have to meet those goals on a budget,” Smith said.

He described one medical device company that was spending almost $4 million per year in ergonomics injuries across 27 plants.

“We discussed a strategy to roll out a proactive ergonomics program. Not as a tool to improve safety metrics, but as a tool to support manufacturing metrics. They wanted a 25 percent reduction in cycle time, 50 percent reduction in quality issues, a 20 percent reduction in space, and improved throughput by 20 percent. Ultimately, we were able to show $5.7 million in improvement related to these metrics, just by improving ergonomics.”

Even in an office environment, proactive ergonomics helps companies improve talent recruitment and retention, especially among younger employees just entering the workforce.

One example of a proactive program for an office is a web-based app that asks workers to describe and evaluate their work spaces. The app will identify possible ergonomic hazards and make suggestions to eliminate them.

“A lot of companies are nervous about this, because they think it means they’ll have to go out and buy a new chair for everyone, but often the changes are much simpler than that and cost nothing,” Spencer said. The recommendations include things like adjusting the height of a chair or moving commonly used items closer to avoid over-reaching.

“Typically, safety programs have been a one-way conversation, with employers broadcasting the message ‘safety is our #1 priority.’ Millennials want to see employers back that up.” — Rick Spencer, head of prevention and optimization, Briotix

Additionally, these programs improve employee satisfaction because they engage workers and empower them to make changes to their environment. They go a bit further than the tried-and-true “suggestion box,” Spencer said, because they provide instant feedback.

“This is especially important for retaining millennials. They want to have their voices heard, and they want feedback. They also value their work environment almost as highly as they do compensation,” he said.

“If they’re not happy with where they work, they’ll leave. They won’t put up with waiting around to see if they get hurt.”

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Millennials will constitute the majority of the workforce by 2020, so employers need to focus on additional ways to engage with them.

“Typically, safety programs have been a one-way conversation, with employers broadcasting the message ‘safety is our #1 priority,’ ” Spencer said. “Millennials want to see employers back that up.”

Apps also have the added feature of being interactive and fun. Smith said that social media platforms can be a useful tool for soliciting feedback and measuring sentiment around safety programs, which risk managers can use to make adjustments.

“We have to leverage technology to get ahead of ergonomic injury risk and to engage workers early,” Spencer said. “It all comes down to recognizing that your people are your greatest asset, and treating them as such.”

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

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

4 Companies That Rocked It by Treating Injured Workers as Equals; Not Adversaries

The 2018 Teddy Award winners built their programs around people, not claims, and offer proof that a worker-centric approach is a smarter way to operate.
By: | October 30, 2018 • 3 min read

Across the workers’ compensation industry, the concept of a worker advocacy model has been around for a while, but has only seen notable adoption in recent years.

Even among those not adopting a formal advocacy approach, mindsets are shifting. Formerly claims-centric programs are becoming worker-centric and it’s a win all around: better outcomes; greater productivity; safer, healthier employees and a stronger bottom line.

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That’s what you’ll see in this month’s issue of Risk & Insurance® when you read the profiles of the four recipients of the 2018 Theodore Roosevelt Workers’ Compensation and Disability Management Award, sponsored by PMA Companies. These four programs put workers front and center in everything they do.

“We were focused on building up a program with an eye on our partner experience. Cost was at the bottom of the list. Doing a better job by our partners was at the top,” said Steve Legg, director of risk management for Starbucks.

Starbucks put claims reporting in the hands of its partners, an exemplary act of trust. The coffee company also put itself in workers’ shoes to identify and remove points of friction.

That led to a call center run by Starbucks’ TPA and a dedicated telephonic case management team so that partners can speak to a live person without the frustration of ‘phone tag’ and unanswered questions.

“We were focused on building up a program with an eye on our partner experience. Cost was at the bottom of the list. Doing a better job by our partners was at the top.” — Steve Legg, director of risk management, Starbucks

Starbucks also implemented direct deposit for lost-time pay, eliminating stressful wait times for injured partners, and allowing them to focus on healing.

For Starbucks, as for all of the 2018 Teddy Award winners, the approach is netting measurable results. With higher partner satisfaction, it has seen a 50 percent decrease in litigation.

Teddy winner Main Line Health (MLH) adopted worker advocacy in a way that goes far beyond claims.

Employees who identify and report safety hazards can take credit for their actions by sending out a formal “Employee Safety Message” to nearly 11,000 mailboxes across the organization.

“The recognition is pretty cool,” said Steve Besack, system director, claims management and workers’ compensation for the health system.

MLH also takes a non-adversarial approach to workers with repeat injuries, seeing them as a resource for identifying areas of improvement.

“When you look at ‘repeat offenders’ in an unconventional way, they’re a great asset to the program, not a liability,” said Mike Miller, manager, workers’ compensation and employee safety for MLH.

Teddy winner Monmouth County, N.J. utilizes high-tech motion capture technology to reduce the chance of placing new hires in jobs that are likely to hurt them.

Monmouth County also adopted numerous wellness initiatives that help workers manage their weight and improve their wellbeing overall.

“You should see the looks on their faces when their cholesterol is down, they’ve lost weight and their blood sugar is better. We’ve had people lose 30 and 40 pounds,” said William McGuane, the county’s manager of benefits and workers’ compensation.

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Do these sound like minor program elements? The math says otherwise: Claims severity has plunged from $5.5 million in 2009 to $1.3 million in 2017.

At the University of Pennsylvania, putting workers first means getting out from behind the desk and finding out what each one of them is tasked with, day in, day out — and looking for ways to make each of those tasks safer.

Regular observations across the sprawling campus have resulted in a phenomenal number of process and equipment changes that seem simple on their own, but in combination have created a substantially safer, healthier campus and improved employee morale.

UPenn’s workers’ comp costs, in the seven-digit figures in 2009, have been virtually cut in half.

Risk & Insurance® is proud to honor the work of these four organizations. We hope their stories inspire other organizations to be true partners with the employees they depend on. &

Michelle Kerr is associate editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]