A Practical Approach to Ergonomics

September 1, 2003

Preventing injuries takes more than buying new equipment. In fact, the most important investments are in education and awareness.

 

A Practical Approach to Ergonomics

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Preventing injuries takes more than buying new equipment. In fact, the most important investments are in education and awareness.

By An Brunelle

In the past 10 years, ergonomics has achieved buzzword status. Desks, chairs, telephones, computer gear and even vegetable peelers are touted for their ergonomic benefits. But as a professional who has worked for 25 years in the rehabilitation field, I know that ergonomics involves far more than buying the right equipment.

Employee education must be an integral part of an effective ergonomics program. The underlying need is simple: Ergonomics involves changing habits. Most people get accustomed to a certain posture, desk height, computer screen position and so forth. When an ergonomic adjustment is made — essentially to put the body in a neutral posture with elbows at least at a 90-degree angle and feet on the floor or a support — it feels "different." Unless an employee understands the benefit of the ergonomic adjustments, there will be a greater likelihood that he or she will return to those old habits.

When employees fully comprehend the reasons behind ergonomic adjustments to their workstations — something as simple as adjusting a chair or keyboard height — they are more likely to internalize and use the knowledge. That’s increasingly important as more employees work from home or use a home computer for leisure activities. Having an ergonomically correct workstation from nine to five does little good if an employee spends the evening hours surfing the Internet in an unhealthy body posture and desk setup.

Educating employees

Teaching healthier work habits decreases the likelihood of future injuries. Thus, it makes far more sense to incorporate ergonomics education into employee wellness and injury prevention programs than to wait for complaints of lower back pain and numbness, or tingling in wrists or hands before assessing ergonomic conditions. With education, however, comes responsibility. Employees, themselves, must be committed to better ergonomic health.

"Education is part of it, but the employee needs to be actively involved in the process. People have to take the information to heart, and not just think that someone is going to fix it for them," says Mallory Lynch, a certified ergonomics associate who works for the University of California, Berkeley, and the Diversified Management Group based in California.

UC Berkeley trains volunteers in each department to be the first points of contact for preventive ergonomic evaluations. This is an ongoing process that kicks in whenever a new hire arrives, an employee moves to a different workstation or new equipment is received. "There are still going to be some injuries," Lynch adds, "but there will be good faith on both sides to make the workplace a healthier environment."

The university's program belies the image of ergonomics that some employers cling to: costly programs that are unlikely to produce a return on investment.

Cost concerns

Concern about cost prompted fierce resistance to federal ergonomics regulations that were put into place late in the Clinton administration and prompted President Bush to sign a repeal order in March 2001. The administration labeled the regs, "unduly burdensome and overly broad" — a criticism that was not entirely without merit — but efforts on the federal and state level continue. In May 2003, the National Advisory Committee on Ergonomics presented an initial set of work plans to the Occupation Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) aimed at assisting OSHA with its goal of reducing musculoskeletal disorders in the workplace. At the state level, both California and Washington have brought their legislative and regulatory powers to bear on the workplace risk of repetitive motion injuries. Both state laws have faced legal challenges.

Meanwhile, many employers are not waiting for absolute proof that ergonomics programs — whether preventive or ameliorative — produce dollar-for-dollar savings. They recognize that the overall goal of such programs is to reduce the rate of employee injury and that there is no question that fewer injuries mean less absenteeism, reduced workers comp claims costs and improved productivity.

Why it works

Eugene Van de Bittner, PhD, studied the impact of ergonomics in the office for his doctoral dissertation, completed in 2001. "I knew when I set out to do my dissertation that people got better with ergonomics. I wanted to know why: Why do employees get better? Why do employers experience a reduction in workers compensation claims and time-loss due to disability?"

Van de Bittner, president and rehabilitation consultant for Mirfak Associates, Inc., in Lafayette, Calif., began with a 1997 report from the U.S. General Accounting Office entitled, "Worker Protection: Private Sector Ergonomics Programs Yield Positive Results." The GAO report was based on case studies of five companies in widely varied businesses: American Express Financial Advisors; AMP Inc., which makes electronic connection devices; Navistar International, which builds heavy- and medium-duty trucks; Sisters of Charity Health System, medical and nursing home care, and Texas Instruments, which makes radar, navigation and missile guidance systems.

All five companies reported a reduction in total workers’ compensation costs for musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), including back and joint complaints that are commonly addressed in office ergonomics. The GAO reported that they experienced reductions of 35 to 91 percent during the timeframe studied. "At the Texas Instruments facility, where the ergonomics program has been in place for the longest period of time, workers’ compensation costs for MSDs have dropped appreciably — from millions of dollars in 1991 to hundreds of thousands of dollars in 1996," the report states. "The achievement of these reductions is significant, given that high MSD costs were a major impetus for initiating these programs and lowering these costs was often a major outcome goal."

Importantly, the GAO study also found that the five ergonomic programs had specific core elements in common: management commitment, employee involvement, identification of problem jobs, training and education, and medical management.

In his own case studies of ergonomic programs, Van de Bittner looked at other key elements that improved efficacy. They included employees’ beliefs that their health was (or was not) determined by their behaviors, and whether employees acknowledged that individuals can take actions to make a positive difference in their health. "There was a statistically significant difference. Those who believed that they had the wherewithal to have an impact on their job health were more likely to be successful," he adds.

These studies illustrate a clear link between effective ergonomics and employee education. When employees understand and embrace an ergonomics program they are empowered to take care of their work health, and they are more likely to follow through both at the office and on their own time.

Breaking it down

There is neither major expense nor great mystery to the components of an effective program:

  • Identify job-functions or areas in which there is a high incidence of injuries.

  • Install adjustable ergonomic furniture and equipment, such as desks, computer tables, chairs, wrist-rests for keyboards, footrests, document holders, telephone headsets and glare screens for computers. These need not be costly. Most office furniture today is adjustable. However, it needs to be adjusted correctly.

  • Check the ergonomics of workstations periodically. This may involve periodic visits from an ergonomic evaluator or teaching employees how to check their own settings on a regular basis.

  • Pay closer attention to workstations that are shared by two employees. Each individual must make adjustments — checking chair height, computer screen angle, and so forth — before sitting down to work.

  • Improve work habits, including changing postures throughout the day, alternating sitting and standing, and avoiding being in one position for too long.

  • Encourage employees who return to work after an injury to take periodic postural breaks to help prevent re-injury. If an employee waits until he or she experiences pain, it is too late.

  • Educate employees not only after an injury has occurred, but as part of a prevention and health-awareness program.

When employers are committed to ergonomics, the result is a healthier workplace. But the onus cannot be on the employer alone. Once the employer provides the workstation evaluations, the resources and the education to work in an ergonomically sound environment, an ongoing partnership is forged to help the employee make healthier choices.

An Brunelle is principal of Disability Management Specialists of Glendale, Calif., who specializes in office ergonomics and return-to-work consulting. She is also the chair-elect of the Certification of Disability Management Specialists Commission (CDMSC), the only nationally accredited certifying organization for disability management specialists. For more information on disability management or the CDMSC, please visit www.cdms.org .

More Business & Health Articles About This Topic:

What's Your Next Move on Ergonomics? (February 2001)

OSHA Stiffens its Ergonomics Stance (February 2001)

On-the-Job Safety Starts at the Top (Sep. 1, 1999)

Resource Links:

Certified Disability Management Specialistshttp://www.cdms.org/

 



An Brunelle. A Practical Approach to Ergonomics.

Business and Health

Sep. 1, 2003;21.