Ergonomic Exposures

The Overlooked Cost Cutter

Musculoskeletal disorders account for the majority of occupational injuries, but too few resources are dedicated to preventing them.
By: | July 1, 2015 • 3 min read

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) accounted for one-third of all occupational injuries and illnesses in 2013, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Costs for workers’ comp claims involving MSDs are already around $26,000 on average, and can increase when costs associated with absenteeism, retraining, and lost productivity are taken into consideration.

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Despite these numbers, there are few proactive methods in place to identify risk factors for the development of a musculoskeletal injury and prevent it from occurring. Rather, approaches to these types of injuries are typically reactionary.

“Companies respond when an employee asks, by which time they already have pain or discomfort,” said Nate Rogoff, software specialist with Humanscale, a manufacturer of ergonomic products. “Ergonomists aren’t able to get ahead.”

Stats compiled by Humanscale show that there is only one certified ergonomist for every 100,000 workers in the United States. Many companies simply overlook the impact that improved ergonomics can have on decreasing injury claims and boosting productivity.

“Most employers do not proportionally allocate their resources — their time, talent and treasure — related to their injury experience and exposures,” said Tom Hilgen, senior risk control consultant at Willis Risk & Analytics. An article written by Hilgen details one company that was allocating only 5 percent of its cost-control resources to ergonomics, even though musculoskeletal injuries accounted for 50 percent of its incurred costs.

Ergonomists’ limited reach is further constricted by corporate silos that separate initiatives by risk management, safety and human resources departments.

“Safety and risk management have their own metrics, and operations have their own metrics, but they often are not aligning them. There needs to be the right alignment of business metrics that includes the impact of MSDs properly and how they affect costs associated with injuries, with absenteeism, turnover, and production quality and schedule,” Hilgen said.

Stats compiled by Humanscale show that there is only one certified ergonomist for every 100,000 workers in the United States.

Collection and sharing of the right data can help companies predict what injuries are likely to occur in which workers, rather than wait for them to appear.

Lagging indicators like type of injury, total count and total dollar amount of claims, and top causes of injuries can help employers pinpoint their top exposures, Hilgen said. But it’s also imperative to track the performance of existing ergonomics interventions.

“The best predictor of future performance is how well are they doing on a daily, weekly, monthly basis in terms of prevention of MSDs,” he said. “We call that a scorecard. We look at their ergonomics processes and score them between zero and 100 to see how they’re doing in terms of implementing best practices for prevention of MSDs.”

But best practices circle back to the professional ergonomists who come in such short supply. In addition to integrating efforts across an organization, employers need to strengthen the expert base from which they draw their best practices.

There are some tools that companies can use to help streamline and focus their efforts on MSD prevention.

Alan Hedge, a professor in the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis at Cornell University developed a software tool called Sonexes that uses predictive analytics to predict work-related MSDs based on the risk factors within a particular work environment.

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“[The tool] uses a rule-based algorithm or expert system which utilizes the knowledge and expertise of an ergonomist or practitioner through the software,” said Rogoff, a colleague of Hedge’s. The program checks results from an employee’s checkups against its rule-based system — based on established best practice — to produce a prediction of potential injuries.

“It was created to assist practitioners and ergonomists because they’re so outnumbered,” Rogoff said. “It allows them to gain visibility on their entire employee workforce at the same time. Within the software, they can drill down to different departments and identify high-risk individuals. It allows them to better prioritize their interventions.”

As safety, wellness and employee health initiatives grow inextricably linked, large companies are being called more and more to break down silos, improve communication and share data across all departments. Ergonomics can get lost in these efforts, but the high costs associated with MSDs certainly demand some attention.

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]