Most folks aren’t aware that ‘ergonomics’ was an engineering strategy of the US military in World War II. As war planes took on a more important role in warfare, the US government realized that with the hefty investment it was making in warplanes that it was critical to reduce pilot error which resulted from poorly designed cockpits. The United States government would interview the pilots about their flight experience after they landed and leveraged ergonomics to engineer out confusing instrument panels and cockpit arrangement which might lead to accelerated pilot fatigue that could render the pilot less effective in their mission. Soon enough, ergonomics was integrated into all military equipment and eventually, American industry.
Today, most of us leverage ergonomics every day, without giving it a second thought. Each time we get into an automobile to drive, we adjust seat distance from the pedals and steering wheel. Seat height for viewing over the dashboard and we adjust all mirrors to assure that we’ve got the best view of our surroundings. These adjustments reduce accidents due to driver error and save lives as a result, not just our own but potentially lives of those in the vehicles around us. These adjustments also enable us to drive greater distances by minimizing discomfort and fatigue.
Poor Perception in Workers Comp
So what is ‘ergonomics’? The term ‘ergonomics’ means different things to different people. In workers compensation, post injury, one thing is clear; the perception of ergonomics is not aligned with the value it potentially brings to the table in reducing claims costs. Perception is reality and the reality is, that in claims organizations and small to mid size employers, ergonomics is often perceived as a process of purchasing costly, fancy equipment upgrades for one injured worker that will set off a firestorm of requests for the same equipment by non injured co-workers. It’s a whimsical journey through a catalog (think Sears Wish Book) of all things cool and unnecessary to accommodate an injured workers return to the work environment. Another perception within this demographic, is that ‘ergonomics’ only impacts office environments and therefore it’s not considered for non office work environments.
It’s time to separate ‘ergonomics’ as a marketing tool from ‘ergonomics’ as a return to work and productivity tool that will enable injured workers to recover at their original jobs. ‘Ergonomics’ is a specialized approach to any work environment that when integrated correctly will increase worker productivity and decrease worker discomfort and injuries. Simply stated, Ergonomics is: fitting the work environment to the worker.
Ergonomics is not restricted by industry or job type. Take construction for example. Most construction sites are highly dynamic, there are lots of tasks and movements taking place. The more dynamic the work environment, the more opportunity there is to identify changes that will benefit the worker and their productivity. Examples include the foundry worker restricted from work because of one task that was assumed to have caused their right epicondilitis, when in fact the ergonomics expert demonstrated it had nothing to do with that task at all and the purchase of a wagon was all that was necessary to provide a safe pathway to productive work.
Anthropometrically speaking, not all things fit all people. Savvy employers understand this and employ ergonomics when building or retrofitting facilities. Work environments that are adjustable assure that the majority of workers will be as productive as possible without discomfort. These work environments allow the workers to remain in neutral postures for as long as possible thereby limiting the wear and tear on their body. For small to midsize employers with limited resources, it’s not realistic or necessary to re-engineer their work environments, however encouraging their employees to notify them of discomfort as early as possible provides the employer the opportunity to interact with the worker in identifying when and why they are experiencing discomfort and what low cost ergonomic changes can be implemented that will allow the employee to recover at their original job.
The Aging Workforce
Ergonomics plays a valuable role in the aging workforce as well. Long term employees that fall into this category find that as they age, their body composition changes. They might experience weight gain or muscle loss and fatigue. Many of these employees will benefit from slight changes in the way they interact with their work environment. Habits and techniques which the aging worker has may have served them well in the majority of their career and now may need to be evaluated and adjusted to their changing physical makeup. A major challenge that employers face with their aging workforce is the need for the worker to remain employed and their fear of losing their job if they report pain and discomfort. It’s imperative that employers communicate with their aging workforce in a supportive manner in an effort to dispel the fear of losing their jobs and identifying ways to make simple ergonomic changes that allow the worker to stay on the job and improve employee morale.
The role of ergonomics in post injury workers compensation claims mitigation is significant. Most small to mid size employers have had little experience with ergonomics. Therefore the overwhelming majority of work environments within these employers could benefit from low/no cost accommodations which are best identified by an expert on-site. These accommodations, when presented to the treating physician often promulgate the elusive work capacity often associated with musculoskeletal injuries. Physicians that aren’t providing limited work capacities are typically lacking objective information about the work. A proper ergonomic analysis outlining why the ergonomic changes being made in the work environment will allow the worker to recover at work is often all that is necessary to obtain that work release from the treating physician.
Claims representatives that are successful in securing a work capacity, often face an employer that refuses to allow a worker to return unless they are at full duty. Often, the employer assumes that if the injured worker has a restriction then it unequivocally precludes the injured worker from performing their regular job. Most small to midsize employers are incredibly busy and find it easier to say “no” to return to work once a claim representative calls to see if they can accommodate. It’s important at this stage for a claims representative or case manager to identify a work environment specialist with ergonomic expertise to go on-site at the original job to identify whether no/low cost ergonomic accommodations can be made that will reduce physical demands and eliminate awkward postures as much as possible to allow the injured worker to recover, productively at work. The employer with little/no ergonomic expertise is usually too close to the work to analyze it with an objective, ergonomic eye .
Symptoms Equal Opportunity
When it comes to cumulative musculoskeletal injuries there are two roads the employer can take. The road less travelled is the route which will provide the most value. This is the road that sophisticated employers take. These employers understand that compensable cumulative injuries all started with mild discomfort weeks or even months before the filing of a claim. They began as a symptom. A symptom that if encouraged to be reported at the earliest stage, gives the employer an opportunity to look at the work environment with the worker and identify what tasks are contributing to the symptoms the worker is describing. It’s important to determine when in the work process the symptom begins and whether it subsides or lingers. When engaging the injured worker in the risk factor identification process, the employer is developing trust and goodwill with their employee. Often the changes require some trial and error but if reported early enough the employee doesn’t risk exacerbating the symptoms before they’ve identified the risk factors or habits and techniques that contributed to symptoms that will allow them to remain at work. These employers also understand that the ergonomic changes they identified often benefit additional workers, reduce future injuries and sends a message throughout the workforce that the employer recognizes the workers value and will do what it can to keep the workforce healthy.
The Six Figure Eye Roll
The second road and the road that employers take time and again is littered with increased and unnecessary claims costs is the road of suspicion. The road where, when a worker notifies their employer about cumulative pain and discomfort, their employer responds with an eye roll. This employer behavior occurs because there was no accident, no event, no witnesses. The workers pain is subjective and the employer doesn’t understand that the answer lies in the work environment. The eye roll sends a clear signal to the injured worker that their employer doesn’t believe that their pain and discomfort is related to their job and that sets most claims up for an adversarial and expensive ride. Ergonomics can still make an impact in many of these situations (assuming that the worker hasn’t been terminated) but the need must be identified by the claim representative and it typically requires overcoming an employer barrier about the injured worker.
Acute Musculoskeletal Injuries
These are the sprains and strains that occur as a result of a one time over exertion. The shoulder strain conceived while grabbing a railing while trying to catch a fall. Soft tissue injuries that occurred at work but not cumulatively as a result of performing their regular job. The ergonomic approach is the same as with cumulative, except instead of trying to identify the risk factors that caused the injury, the ergonomics expert is trying to identify and modify tasks in the regular job that post injury may prevent the worker from recovering while performing their regular job.
Insurance carriers and employers that leverage ergonomics on a post injury basis, reap the rewards of significantly reduced temporary total disability days and medical expense. If you are ready to adopt this approach, reset your thinking about ergonomics and utilize qualified work environment specialists that are adept at identifying ergonomic risk factors and the low cost accommodations that will keep your workers on the job.