The frequency with which ergonomic injuries happen is an unwelcome surprise for many hardworking professionals and business owners alike. In addition to the pain and suffering they can cause, ergonomic injuries drive up insurance costs and create excessive lost time for employees. These often aren’t isolated incidents. If one team member is experiencing issues, it is likely that others are as well.
This is something that physical therapist Armand Larragoite, DPT, sees far too often. According to Larragoite, 50% of the ergonomic injuries he sees in physical therapy are preventable.
Let that sink in for a moment. 50% are preventable.
That number represents more than monetary savings. It’s a stat that involves the quality of work and life for employees and the safety of your client’s facility.
Ergonomic injury claims stem from various injuries, but one of the most common is musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). Repetitive movement, lifting too much weight, and bending are causes of MSDs.
From the farm to the factory floor, laborious jobs often create two common injuries: low back pain and shoulder problems. According to Larragoite, 80-90% of injuries he sees in his physical therapy work are back and shoulder-related.
Each injury also has a root cause.
Mitigating injuries starts with employees receiving training on safe work procedures. If an employee is onboarded and not taught how to do their job correctly, they will develop bad mechanics and habits. The human body has an amazing ability to tackle every task, even if the motions used to do the job are incorrect. Over time, this creates problems.
Employee activity plays a significant role in how their bodies handle the job. If workers do their assignments, go home, and have little activity until they return to work, they’re more likely to be injured.
Incorrect workstation setup will also result in injuries. Stations need to be adjusted for each person. Otherwise, employees will reach up, bend over, or engage in repetitive motions their body is not built to do.
When your client establishes production goals, employee well-being must be front of mind. Ambitious metrics will cause injuries when employees work too fast or cut corners, trying to keep up.
Fast-paced work culture, often driven by tight deadlines and increasing demands, can lead to ergonomic injury. Employees in high-risk industries are expected to meet quotas and fulfill orders, so taking time to stretch or warm up is an afterthought. Driven by opportunity cost and not human cost, this workplace mentality leads to more injuries..
Reducing ergonomic claims is an active process. It requires planning, testing, and reviewing workflows. It takes time to change safety practices.
Each workplace and industry is unique. But there are several steps brokers and their clients can take to reduce ergonomic injuries:
As a broker, sit down and review your client’s ergonomic claims. Identify patterns. If employees working on an assembly line have higher shoulder injury claims, they could be reaching overhead too often and incorrectly.
See if your client has a training program for new hires. If not, they need one. It’s critical to establish good habits upfront instead of trying to correct bad habits later. Good behavior (and fewer claims) starts on day one.
If your client does not have a set of standards for doing each task correctly, help them gather the resources they need to create one. Through documentation and an effective safety management system, your client will establish a uniform method for doing jobs correctly, lessening the likelihood an employee will form bad habits. For example, Lagroitte noted that machines should be reset when a new employee takes over so that it fits their height and reach. Taking note of the settings required for the worker to do their job safely is one of many simple but effective items your client can add to their inspection checklists.
As your client implements new practices and procedures, encourage them to monitor employee behavior. Workers who practice good lifting habits and follow guidelines should be rewarded. And if some employees continue to do things incorrectly, it’s important to reinforce how tasks need to be completed.
Ergonomic workplace injuries are preventable. By utilizing smart safety strategies and leveraging technology, a company can significantly reduce and eliminate ergonomic claims.
However, if an employee is injured, they must receive support through the workers compensation and recovery process.
Depending on the issue, an employee may participate in physical therapy. The process typically begins with a referral from a physician. Once in treatment, patients will undergo initial assessment tests to determine the extent of their injury and what type of therapy they need.
Most people require a specific range of motion to perform their job, so working to achieve that range is what therapy seeks to accomplish.
“The goal is to get pain down, range of motion back, and strength back so they can get to functional activities,” Lagroitte said.
As a therapy patient makes progress, many employers require a functional capacity examination. It’s a test that can often take several hours and benchmark how well an employee can complete tasks pertinent to their job.
Lagroitte mentioned that he prefers to get an employee back to work before they discharge from therapy. By seeing how a person does in a real-world work environment, he can assess their progress and if it’s time for them to return to normal activities.
“The worst thing is an early discharge,” Lagroitte said.
Your clients will need to work closely with their employees on a return to work plan. As Lagroitte noted on several instances, encouraging workers to come back before they’ve fully recovered can lead to other injuries.
You and your client can eliminate ergonomic claims. It all begins with prevention through good training and setting expectations for how employees should do their job. However, injury prevention goes beyond lifting properly. It needs to be embedded into a company’s culture.
A system that is prepared to reduce ergonomic claims will cut workers compensation costs. And through these actions, an employer can create a culture where people feel their safety matters and their lives are protected.