Ergonomics: Not New Age Voodoo
Crystals, magnets and stones. Medical experts have dismissed these as baseless New Age treatments, but don’t be so quick to put all prescription-free programs in the same basket. Although no medicine is needed, ergonomics is not New Age voodoo, and there is much you can do to help corporate managers understand the benefits to help keep employees happy, healthy and productive.
ERGONOMIC INJURIES TOP AMONG CLAIMS
When the venerated Liberty Mutual Insurance Company, internationally known for its comprehensive workplace safety research, released its landmark “Top Ten Workplace Injuries” report in 2004, it was no surprise to experts that No. 1 on the list was “Overexertion.” What did surprise a lot of people, though, was just how much it outstripped No. 2, “Falls on the Same Level.” Overexertion injuries cost U.S. employers $13.2 billion each year, while falls not related to ladders or heights cost a mere $6.2 billion. And when factoring in another ergonomics-related injury category, “Repetitive Motion,” Liberty Mutual estimates that ergonomic-related injuries as a whole cost U.S. business $16 billion a year.
The message is clear: Ergonomic-related injuries are the most frequent cause of work-related injuries and represent, by far, the most expensive workers’ compensation claims.
Humantech, an Ann Arbor, Mich.,-based ergonomics consulting firm, adds additional insight into lost productivity considerations. An employee earning $40,000 a year who experiences just 10 minutes of lost productivity per day due to ergonomic discomfort costs the company $1,042 a year in lost wages. Multiply that by a department with 20 employees over 10 years, and you’re looking at some big bucks — $208,400.
And 10 minutes of lost time may be a conservative estimate. Something as basic as an ergonomically correct chair can add as much as “40 productive minutes to the working day of each productive individual,” estimates E.R. Tichauer, author of “Biomechanical Basis of Ergonomics.”
Gary Anderson, furniture specialist with OM Workspace in Phoenix, agrees. “The people who are injured are typically the most productive employees,” notes Anderson. “They are the ones putting in the extra hours, doing what it takes to meet the deadline, the ones glued to their seats and their computers. When they are lost, it is felt strongly in the organization.”
BOTTOM-LINE BENEFITS OF ERGONOMICS
It wasn’t until around 1990 that serious and objective research began to make it clear to employers just how much they could save by improving ergonomics for employees. Examples range from installing ergonomic chairs and workstations, and employee training on proper work postures, to hiring an in-house ergonomic specialist. Some examples:
- In 1990, AT&T Global Information Solutions in San Diego made a concerted effort to improve ergonomics for its 800 employees. The following year, workers’ compensation costs dropped by more than 75 percent.
- In 1992, Tokyo Marine and Fire Insurance Company scheduled an ergonomics seminar for some of its large insureds. Six of the participants implemented the recommendations. Eighteen months later, strain-type injuries for those companies dropped from 141 during the first six-month period to 42 during the final six-month period, saving the company more than $600,000.
- From 1993 to 1994, the Monterey County, Calif., Sheriff’s Department saw its workers’ comp costs fall from $136,000 to just $4,800 after it invested $50,000 in ergonomic furniture, equipment and employee training.
- The state of Wisconsin dropped its annual workers’ comp costs by $300,000 between 1994 and 1997 after it implemented an office ergonomics program.
- Rose HealthCare, Denver’s largest medical provider, conducted an ergonomic intervention pilot study involving half its employees in 1996. During that year, those in the study sustained 72 injuries with an average per-injury cost of $2,959, while employees outside of the study sustained 129 injuries with an average cost of $4,652.
BUY-IN AT THE TOP
Getting top brass to open the company purse strings for projects is never an easy task. This can be especially true with ergonomics, where presidents and CEOs may be familiar with the stories of employees feeling better, but not as familiar with actual dollar savings.
You’re likely to hear comments like, “Sure, ergonomic chairs and workstations might make them feel better, but what’s it going to cost us, and what are we going to save?” Or, “I might just do it to shut everyone up, but I don’t think it’s going to save any money.”
For starters, show them this article.
Second, work with your company’s safety or risk manager, or the individual responsible for workers’ compensation claims, to determine the total cost of claims for the previous year. Then isolate the cost of claims for ergonomic-related injuries, including strains, sprains, overexertions and repetitive motion injuries. Show this number (and percentage) to the boss and tell him or her that an ergonomics program will be able to make a big dent in these numbers, not only the following year, but each and every year after.
If corporate managers are still not convinced, share the experience of AOL in Dulles, Va., which has an aggressive ergonomics assessment program for its office workers. In 2004, AOL conducted 740 ergonomics assessments, 45 percent of which the company initiated, 55 percent of which were requested by employees who reported discomfort. The result: Of 200 workers’ compensation claims filed by employees, only 12 were for ergonomic-related injuries.
Although there are significant cost savings to be had by improved productivity, improved morale and reduced absenteeism, it is often difficult for employers to attach anything but “fuzzy numbers” to ergonomic efforts. However, there are some experts willing to make projections. According to Blake McGowan, an ergonomics consultant and engineer with Humantech, employees will be at least 20 percent more productive if they are given ergonomically appropriate furniture and equipment. “This is a very solid, attractive number to help management justify the cost of the proper equipment,” he states. “In one case, we saw a significant reduction in absenteeism. In a three-year period, absenteeism was reduced by 2,000 days.”
What CEO wouldn’t be happy with that?