Ergonomic-related injuries have a dramatic effect on both employees and a business’ operations and bottom line. Understanding the potential ergonomic hazards present at a facility and having a comprehensive ergonomics program and strategy are foundational pillars in preventing injuries from occurring. This also helps to minimize the progression of minor issues into major injuries and manage injuries when they do occur. Having a plan and appropriate proactive control measures will guide operations in caring for their valuable personnel and produce a positive Return-On-Investment (ROI) for implemented strategies.
Caring for Employees
While the bottom line is always a consideration for an employer, the overall purpose of instituting an ergonomics or injury prevention program is to take care of people and send them home at the end of the day in a similar manner to which they arrived. As decent humans, nobody wants to see a person get hurt or witness the rippling impacts on an injured person, the injured person’s family, and the burden on the healthcare system. Identifying and correcting ergonomic hazards—before they occur—should always be the priority.
The encouraging news associated with proactively managing developing injuries is that there are positive impacts (which are often non-tangible or difficult to quantify) for both the employer and employees. Implementing a program that focuses on improving and reducing ergonomic hazards to prevent injuries from occurring not only protects employees but develops a positive safety culture in the workplace. The demonstration of care builds both culture and loyalty to the company. This typically aids in increasing quality of work, improving morale, and generally lowering workplace stress factors. From a hands-on perspective, simply making the job more ergonomically correct also optimizes productivity and improves general wellness because the tasks will cause less physical stress on the body.
Unfortunately, it is typically impossible to remove all hazards, so to some degree, ergonomic injuries are bound to occur. Workplace Musculoskeletal Disorders (WMSDs) tend to be cumulative in nature, in that extended exposure to hazards will progressively make a developing injury more severe and more difficult to manage. With absolute certainty, early intervention will prevent the development of more serious injuries. Experienced healthcare providers will state that early intervention or proactive care is typically more effective with both better and faster results in lieu of waiting for an injury to develop and become more severe.
The Costs of Injury
With employee care being paramount, there will realistically be direct impacts and costs associated when an employee is injured. With healthcare costs soaring, the total estimated cost (including wage losses, medical expenses, administrative expenses, and employer costs but excluding property damage) of a work-related injury in 2020 was $44,000 per medically consulted injury as per the National Safety Council (with the cost of a fatality averaging $1,310,000). While this average can be further teased apart by parts of the body affected, cause, and nature of the injury, in general, the impact of an injury at a facility is often underappreciated, and simple calculations can demonstrate the impact on the bottom line.
If a particular business were to have 10 injuries in a year that required medical consultation, the cost would be $440,000 (or 10 x $44,000). Assuming a 10% profit margin for that business, that means an extra $4.4 million in sales would be needed just to break even from the costs of injuries. That is a significant amount of capital that could potentially have been repurposed into injury prevention measures that would have also had non-tangible benefits for the business.
Beyond the high costs of an injury, when an injury requires medical consultation, most of those injuries become recordable injuries under OSHA’s Recordkeeping Regulation (29 CFR 1904). Most business managers will be familiar with those requirements and their impacts as the MOD rate associated with Workers’ Compensation insurance is directly connected to recordable injury numbers in relation to other businesses in similar industries. Further, when these injuries are reported to OSHA (either through Severe Injury Reporting Requirements, through Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) records requests, or through OSHA’s electronic submission of records requirements by March 2nd of each year), high injury rates can flag a business and increase the probability of a targeted regulatory inspection.
While the direct costs of injuries are quantifiable numbers, the impact on the employees and resulting impact on the business is much more difficult to quantify but should still be considered. Productivity loss is a loose term that can be used to describe other non-tangible business impacts, such as the costs associated with diminshed productivity or the decrease in quality resulting from new and/or less efficient workers needed to replace the injured person. Temporary or new employees are just not as effective as trained employees and may also cause other interpersonal or cultural disruptions in the facility culture. These factors also need to be considered in the larger context of the cost of an injury to a business.
Strategies for Prevention and ROI
The first step in building the business case for implementing a comprehensive ergonomics program is to properly understand the need. This will provide guidelines for the level of intervention most appropriate for the facility. First, estimating the true cost (both direct and indirect costs) of an injury by calculating the additional sales needed will yield a picture of the direct impact on the business.
Pending results, understanding both the direct and indirect costs of an injury and obtaining buy from the facility leadership become critical before implementing the initial stages of an ergonomics program. If senior leadership does not buy into building a proactive culture, efforts to create improvement will often be ineffective. Key elements of a proactive safety culture may include employee empowerment to express safety concerns (in non-retaliatory ways), encouraging the early reporting of symptoms of injury, and having an engaged safety committee. These are all indicators of a safety culture supported by facility leadership (note: most of these elements should be part of the facility’s Injury & Illness Prevention Program, MN AWAIR Program, Accident Prevention Program, etc.).
With the presence of proactive safety culture, the rollout of an ergonomics program addressing the facility’s specific needs will be more effective. The primary pillar of a program is to understand where key ergonomic hazards are present in the facility. Understanding where and when employees encounter ergonomic hazards (i.e., force, repetition, awkward posture, duration, and environment) will increase awareness of these potential hazards and lead to personnel subconsciously protecting themselves. Understanding these hazards typically results from conducting proper facility assessments/screenings followed by training personnel to recognize hazards.
While various ergonomic screenings are available on the market, U.S. Compliance utilizes a basic screening form as part of our standard ergonomics program. This screening form is intended as a high-level screening to identify key hazards and can be rolled out either by an EHS professional or through Safety Committee level employees. Oftentimes, and for more significant hazards or processes in which capital investments may be needed, an Advanced Ergonomics Screening that provides an in-depth assessment, a summary of hazards, and a quantified risk assessment may be justified (this level of screening is more complex and needs to be completed by an Ergonomics Specialist). Regardless of the screening type, the hazards identified need to be assessed for risk, and appropriate corrections must be implemented.
Following the facility assessment and identification of key ergonomic hazards, employees need to be trained to recognize ergonomic hazards and concepts of back-injury prevention. Employees need to understand that regardless of screening and improvements made in the facility, it is not possible to eliminate all hazards completely. Recognizing hazards and protecting oneself when possible will always be a key component in reducing injury potential.
Additional components of an ergonomics program should also include a Seated or Desk Worker Screening Process since it’s easy to forget about office personnel who also have significant ergonomic hazards from prolonged sitting and computer work. Also, considering ergonomics in the planning phases for new equipment, line set-up, or new procedures is critical in reducing the introduction of new hazards into the process. Remember, it will always be easier and more efficient to address potential issues prior to the installation of a new process or equipment. Also, ongoing monitoring and periodic re-assessments of hazards need to occur to stay on top of developing issues.
For many facilities managing all of the steps of a comprehensive ergonomics program, the complexity may require advanced knowledge of ergonomic controls to determine the most cost-effective improvements. Retaining an ergonomics professional for ongoing support may be a solid strategy, especially in multifaceted environments. While U.S. Compliance has an ergonomics subscription model for this type of support, various providers are available who can provide any or all of the elements of a program, depending upon facility needs.
At times, it will realistically be impractical to reduce or engineer out ergonomic hazards. Despite best intentions, comprehensive screening, and employee training, some hazards will still exist that cannot be controlled appropriately. In these circumstances, it becomes critical to implement a program to manage the development of injuries when they do occur. As discussed above, early intervention is critical in these circumstances.
Over the last decade, a new strategy has emerged that brings on-site care providers into facilities to proactively manage developing injuries. While these programs can have a significant upfront investment, ROI with these programs is frequently in the 6 to 10 range. While this level of ROI sounds unbelievable, it has been demonstrated as a common range after experience in a large number of programs through multiple vendors. When employees are able to conveniently see a provider on-site—before it is a significant issue—they get better, and the injury often does not progress to the point of needing medical consultation or becoming a recordable-level injury.
Beyond injury prevention, employees look at this as an added benefit of employment at the company, which can also be postured for retention of talent, decreased turnover, and aids in almost all of the previously identified non-tangible benefits of a comprehensive ergonomics program. However, caution is needed while rolling out an on-site care program as this is a ballooning industry and many providers are entering the field without proper knowledge or processes. A vetted vendor is critical to properly manage cases and have structure to ensure that treatment does not cross the line into creating recordable injuries. Documentation and understanding what can and cannot be done is vital and reputable vendors will have the processes and protocols in place to ensure these lines are not crossed.
Implementing a comprehensive ergonomics program at a facility will have a dramatic impact on proactively managing injuries at any facility, regardless of size or industry. In the current work environment, taking care of hard-to-find quality employees is a necessity and fortunately, doing so will typically have a positive ROI and impact on a company’s bottom line. However, understanding what controls and processes are appropriate for a particular facility can become complex. While an experienced ergonomics professional can aid or streamline this process, the basic steps to roll out a program include:
- Build a proactive safety culture
- Implement a comprehensive ergonomics program
- Screen all significant jobs/tasks/positions for ergonomic hazards
- Implement controls for easy and high-risk hazards
- Train employees to recognize ergonomic hazards and back-injury prevention
- Implement a seated/desk worker ergonomics assessment process
- Consider ergonomics while planning phases of new equipment and processes
- Consider on-site care providers if hazards are persistent or cannot be adequately controlled
Get guidance on how to improve your facility’s ergonomic programs with help from U.S. Compliance. Our expert team is equipped with the best practices and systems for facilities of various industries. Visit our website or contact us today.