Surviving the Grind

MORE THAN CATASTROPHIC accidents, the mundane details of a day at work claim the most injuries. However, conducting ergonomic assessments, accident-proofing work areas, providing inexpensive safety equipment, and training your employees will create a safer workplace and reduce potential financial losses for any business.

The cost of workplace injuries is rising faster than inflation, according to a recent safety index released by the Boston-based Liberty Mutual Insurance. The Workplace Safety Index ranks the leading causes of serious, on-the-job injuries, based on payments to injured employees and their medical care providers. The index helps companies focus safety efforts on the causes of the most expensive workplace injuries, which mostly are caused by typical routine activities — not accidents. Among the top 10 causes of workplace injuries identified by the index are overexertion and repetitive motion injuries.

Greater workplace injuries factor into higher workers' compensation and health insurance rates, lost work time and worker-replacement costs. According to the index, the financial burden of serious work-related injuries and illnesses grew to $45.8 billion in 2001 from $44.2 billion in 2000.

While business may often feel helpless reigning in such outside expenses as insurance rates, they will find that controlling safety records will make this more manageable. Pinpointing potential exposure is the first step to preventing future workers' compensation claims. For example, an ergonomics task analysis is useful in examining the dynamics of employee tasks. In their analysis, employers should look at these potential problem areas:

Excessive repetitiveness: An employee's risk of developing an ergonomic disorder, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, increases as the repetitiveness of a task increases.

Too much energy: Another consideration is the amount of energy that an employee applies to accomplish a task. Especially as overexertion is the leading safety concern, excessive use of energy in performing a task can lead to back problems. Likewise, the speed at which an employee moves arms, wrists and fingers can also be an indicator of potential ergonomic stress.

In one position too long: Observe the ergonomics problem known as “static loading.” An example of static loading is sitting for a long time, such as on a waste collection route, or holding arms out in front of the body. Extended work periods with no opportunities to rest and allow the body to recover and repair itself can increase the risk of cumulative trauma disorders.

Bad posture: Extreme deviations from neutral body posture increase safety risks. Examples of extreme postures include raising arms above the shoulder, twisting the torso, reaching behind or leaning too far toward one side.

The “wrong” equipment: Supply adjustable seating, foot stools, tools with longer handles, floor mats, back belts or other equipment depending on the work site and job requirements.

Too little training: Implementing the correct use of motion and procedure falls upon the employer. Educate employees on proper lifting methods, posture and even the importance of taking some time away from the task, and consistently remind them of safety precautions.