Reducing Cumulative Trauma Disorder Risks

Employers spend an estimated $20 billion annually on insurance claims related to cumulative trauma disorders (CTDs), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Washington, D.C. CTDs are a result of continued stress on tendons, muscles and nerves of the hand, wrist, forearm, elbow and shoulder, and include conditions such as carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, bursitis and backaches.

CTDs began receiving attention in the 1980s when computers became common in the workplace and carpal tunnel syndrome cases spiked. Even more recently, proposed Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA), Washington, D.C., ergonomics rules have brought CTDs to the forefront. These rules have broadened the definition of CTDs, also known as musculoskeletal disorders.

However, a Wall Street Journal article cited several industries estimating exorbitant costs to comply with OSHA's proposal. According to the National Council on Compensation Insurance, Boca Raton, Fla., the average cost for one cumulative, repetitive stress injury is $10,270.

While compliance costs are debated among businesses, costs for potential CTDs have many industries taking extra safety precautions and implementing additional employee training. A company, of course, pays for its lack of a safe work environment with hefty workers' premiums.

The costs of CTDs can be enormous, so to minimize the risk of claims, many insurance carriers offer ergonomics loss control services. However, improvements to the workplace often can be implemented inexpensively and easily. Analysis should begin by pinpointing problem areas. An ergonomics task analysis - where each employee's task procedures, routines and requirements are reviewed - can help to determine what actions place stress on tendons, joints, nerves or muscles. The study encourages companies to ask questions about how an employee holds equipment or picks up a trash can, how a driver sits in a truck and whether workers are required to stand for a long time. An employee's risk of developing an ergonomic disorder correlates to job repetitiveness.

As a result of the analysis, employers should recognize, and possibly adjust, the factors that influence CTD risks, such as job repetition, exertion force, static work loading, body posture, the speed of the motion and task duration. The amount of energy an employee applies to accomplish his work also should be considered. Using high force coupled with repetitiveness while lifting or unloading can lead to a high-risk exposure. Once all risk factors are evaluated, changes can be made to equipment, materials or the site to reduce CTD risks.

Correcting ergonomics exposures and instituting proper procedures involves changing both employee and employer habits. An employer should educate employees in proper lifting methods and sitting positions, as well as the importance of taking breaks.

Breaks, job rotation or an expansion of an employee's duties can help minimize exposures. Even adjusting the time an employee is exposed to repetitive tasks will help prevent CTDs.

Employee participation in the ergonomics process is essential. Employees must be educated about their workspace and learn ways to avoid painful ailments. Training also teaches techniques to control problems and handle any medical consequences.

Employees should be encouraged to make suggestions to a formal ergonomics training program. Their suggestions should be helpful because they understand the daily operations and will be aware of job constraints.

Companies also should invest in proper equipment. The right equipment may mean adjustable seating, foot stools, tools with longer handles, floor mats, back belts, etc. Replacing equipment may be an investment, but it can prove productive in controlling workers' compensation premiums.

Interviews, worksite surveys and supervisory input can help businesses verify that employees are implementing ergonomic changes. Businesses also should promote success stories that might motivate employees to implement their ergonomics training. While CTDs carry a hefty price, it's encouraging to know that an employee injury prevention program is within every budget's reach.