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

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 a freelance editor and writer based out of Philadelphia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]