INSURANCE: Ergonomics Standards Aim To Aid Aches

With the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Washington, D.C., propelling ergonomic standards through Congress, it's important to understand how ergonomics may affect the insurance industry and, in turn, businesses.

Ergonomics is the science of designing equipment to reduce a worker's discomfort and fitting jobs to workers and their physical capabilities. The lack of ergonomic standards in the workplace has meant 600,000 injuries and more than $15 billion per year in workers' compensation costs, say proponents of ergonomics standards. Foes of ergonomic regulations are concerned that implementing ergonomic programs will cost approximately $3.5 billion a year.

Currently, OSHA is meeting opposition with their planned regulations in Congress, but the agency vows to push actions forward. These ergonomic standards would apply to businesses where work related musculoskeletal disorders were reported.

In the '90s, back strains and cumulative trauma disorders (CTD), which include carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis, bursitis and backaches were the most prevalent injuries, accounting for 40 percent of workers' compensation. These conditions result from continued stress on the tendons, muscles and nerves of the hand, elbow, wrist, forearm and shoulder. Despite losses, the U.S. Department of Labor estimates that only 16 percent of U.S. work sites have adopted effective programs to prevent injuries. However, that percentage could increase significantly as a result of rulings in OSHA's favor.

The National Academy of Sciences is conducting an 18-month study on repetitive stress injuries. Results are expected in late 2000. While Congress would rather wait to set ergonomics standards until the study's findings are complete, President Clinton vows to veto attempts to delay OSHA's proposal.

The insurance industry has voiced concerns over ergonomic standards. Insurers anticipate OSHA's proposed requirements translating into higher insurance costs. For example, once a work-related injury is reported, businesses must provide immediate medical attention which would include a medical examination, an employee evaluation and a recommendation of work restrictions. Insurers predict these provisions may mandate workers' compensation benefits and establish federal standards that conflict with current state laws. For example, under OSHA's new regulations, employees would maintain regular earnings for six months where most states only pay two-thirds of an injured worker's wage with a maximum benefit.

Additionally, OSHA's rule would require employers to ensure privacy and confidentiality regarding medical conditions. This would make investigating or defending claims difficult.

There is no debate, however, that a safer workplace reduces potential losses. In fact, reducing ergonomic hazards is relatively simple and training can be implemented inexpensively. Easy solutions include repositioning a worktable or educating an employee on proper lifting techniques. Armed with the right information, workers can initiate many precautions themselves, which lowers companies' costs and encourages employees to protect themselves.

An ergonomically safe workplace begins with:

* The Right Equipment. This includes adjustable seating, tools with longer handles, floor mats, back belts or other equipment.

* The Correct Motion. Educate or remind employees in proper lifting methods and posture.

* Time. It's important to take breaks, rotate jobs or expand job duties to remove employees from a high risk task and minimize exposure to CTDs.

* Employee Participation. Employees should stay involved. Often, some of the best suggestions come from an employee's experiences on the job.

* Employee Training. An ergonomically safe workplace begins with educating employees. They must learn appropriate posture, sitting positions and ways to perform tasks that will help avoid painful ailments.

As businesses most valuable assets, employees must be protected from injury. Adopting an ergonomics process and developing ways to improve facility procedures also will help avoid insurance claims.