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Ergonomic Injury

Work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs), also known as ergonomic injuries, are very common in American workplaces. The 388,060 cases of WMSDs that occurred in 2012 accounted for 34 percent of all workplace illness and injury reports that year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Musculoskeletal disorders include injuries to nerves, muscles, tendons, cartilage, spinal disks and joints, reports the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and a “work-related” MSD occurs when the work task or environment contributes to the problem or worsens the problem.

So why are these disorders more concerning for employers than other types of workplace injuries? According to the CDC, WMSDs have higher costs than other workplace injuries and result in problems like lost productivity and absenteeism. Annually, the economic impact of WMSDs nationwide is between $45 and $54 billion. Therefore, it is important for workplaces to implement effective ergonomics programs to reduce the incidence of these often debilitating disorders.

Ergonomics has an impact beyond workers. This discipline has its roots in improving efficiency and productivity. For years, many employers have known that good ergonomics is often good economics. And those employers have not only saved their workers from injury and potential misery, but they have saved millions of dollars in the process.” – OSHA

What Is an Ergonomic Injury?

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Having poor posture while sitting or standing at work can lead to a WMSD. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Skoivuma

Ergonomic injuries can impact many parts of the body including the back, shoulders, wrists, neck, knees and elbows. Some common examples include pinched nerves, herniated disks, sprains, strains, hernias and carpal tunnel syndrome.

These types of injuries often result from overexertion, working at awkward angles, awkward motions (like bending or twisting), lifting inappropriately, poor posture or repetitive motions. WMSDs are not the result of incidents like slips or falls.

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Lifting can lead to a WMSD. Photo: OSHA

These disorders are also not specific to any one industry. In 2011, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found the industries that encountered the most WMSDs were health care, transportation and warehousing, construction, and retail and wholesale trade. This is not particularly surprising since employees in these industries often do a lot of lifting. Many other workers who do repetitive tasks or work with tools can suffer from these disorders, too, though.

Costs of Ergonomic Injuries: Direct vs. Indirect Costs

All workplace injuries come with direct and indirect costs. The direct costs include medical bills and workers’ compensation payments, while indirect costs include things like lost productivity, absenteeism, and time and money spent training new workers.

To give a sense of what typical WMSDs cost employers, OSHA’s $afety Pays Program provides a chart of average costs. Take a look at the following direct costs of ergonomic injuries:

  • Carpal Tunnel Syndrome – $28,647
  • Sprain – $28,338
  • Strain – $32,319
  • Hernia – $23,083
  • Inflammation – $32,080
ergonomic injury, direct cost, indirect cost

The indirect costs on an injury can be greater than the direct costs.

Those direct costs are pretty significant, but indirect costs can often exceed the amounts of direct costs.

OSHA’s $afety Pays Tool also helps employers estimate the total costs of an ergonomic injury. Users select the type of injury, input their company’s profit margin and then calculate how much additional money in sales the business will need to pay for a WMSD.

Example: If one employee suffers from work-related carpal tunnel syndrome at a company with a three percent profit margin, OSHA estimates the direct cost of the injury would be $28,647 and the indirect cost would be $31,511. To pay for all of these costs, the business would need total additional sales of $2,005,266. (Visit OSHA for more detailed information about this calculator.)

The cost of each WSMD will vary depending on the type of injury, but the median number of days an injured worker spends away from work to recuperate is 12. That’s a significant amount of lost work that the employer will need to compensate for as well.

Finding ways to prevent ergonomic problems is the most effective way to deal with these kinds of injuries, so let’s look at some ways to focus on ergonomic safety in the workplace. 

Methods for Preventing Ergonomic Injuries

According to the Ontario Ministry of Labor in Canada, warning signs for ergonomic injuries include: workers complaining about pain or fatigue, massaging muscles or joints, shaking limbs, wearing splints and making changes to tools or work areas. Workers may not feel comfortable voicing their discomfort, so it’s important to pay attention to these other signs.

Employers and safety managers can be even more proactive and try to implement an ergonomics program that fixes problems before warning signs even show up. The CDC explains that a good ergonomics program has seven elements:

  • Watch out for warning signs.
  • Show management commitment.
  • Provide training in how to identify WSMDs.
  • Assess working conditions to determine what might be problematic. Consult data including attendance history and medical records.
  • Try implementing controls to reduce the risks associated with a task.
  • Emphasize the importance of prevention.
  • Always minimize risk factors when creating new processes.

As part of an ergonomics program, workplaces can use tools like engineering controls and administrative controls to reduce the risks of WMSDs. An engineering control might change the layout of a workstation so an employee doesn’t need to bend or lift as frequently. An administrative control could be expanding an employee’s duties so he spends less time performing the same repetitive task. Minor adjustments to the workplace like adding ergonomic floor mats for employees who stand for long periods could also be useful.

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Stretch breaks can relieve sore muscles. Photo: OSHA

Research also suggests that stretch breaks throughout the workday can help reduce employee discomfort and increase range of motion, so consider whether stretches could help your employees.

The CDC advises employers to try to assess the improvement in the ergonomic health of employees over time, so checking records of sick days, consulting employees’ health questionnaires and checking in with employees is important.

Workplaces that have ergonomics programs have healthier employees and save significant amounts of money. Once you have a program in place, remember:

“The main focus of a comprehensive ergonomic program is to make tasks, jobs, products, environments and systems compatible with the needs, abilities and limitations of people, as opposed to making the people compatible with the work characteristics and demands.” – CDC

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