Take a break from WMDs

February 1, 2008
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Computers are an integral part of today’s work environment. Long hours spent in front of the computer can take their toll on employees. Depending on the length of computer exposure and other factors, reports of discomfort can be frequent.

Costs associated with work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMDs) to businesses are substantial; OSHA estimates these injuries to be between $15 billion and $20 billion per year in the United States. The agency estimates that between 800,000 and 2.7 million American cases of repetitive stress injuries occur each year. For this reason, a number of software products introduced to the market over the past decade, such as ergonomic work pacing software, are aimed at reducing injury rates related to computer use.

One reason why musculoskeletal disorders are controversial is that the terms used to describe them are vague and can describe almost any painful condition where the employee is engaged in repetitive activities. For instance, the term repetitive motion injury implies that repetitive motion causes injury; however, scientific studies have failed to validate this. Hence, if the disorders and their causes are unclear, then effectively designing a software program that prevents them can be a daunting task.

Break time
A variety of interventions address the symptoms of musculoskeletal pain, including administrative controls (altering the way in which work is performed), workstation changes, rest breaks, stretching and exercise. Interventions are based primarily on the theory that the disorders are caused by muscles being tense. People aren’t designed to be sedentary or to work for long uninterrupted hours. Thus, the main intervention recommended for computer operators experiencing musculoskeletal pain is taking short breaks.

Microbreak is the common term used to describe a short, intermittent break. This concept remains at the core of ergonomics software intervention. Incorporating microbreaks into the user’s routine is believed to reduce discomfort. Ergonomic work pacing software, which reminds workers to take breaks during computer use, is designed to mitigate increased levels of discomfort associated with computer use. Breaks could even include times of exercise or stretching.

Pinpointing problems
Many work pacing programs also have the ability to perform an analysis of computer users. This information can be a valuable tool to identify high-risk employees and those who are doing the most keyboarding, and to determine the amount of time being spent on the computer and productivity levels. It can help pinpoint problem areas to make more efficient use of your company’s resources.

In addition, don’t underestimate the value of programs that offer ergonomics training for employees. Even if there is a small decrease in short-term productivity as a result of using a work pacing program, it may be a reasonable price to pay to avoid the cost of WMDs.

While the effectiveness of pacing software may be debated for some time, there are many positive aspects of the software that merit further consideration. Posture surveys, discomfort notification and other ergonomic data can provide valuable feedback for early detection and intervention.

Keep in mind that changes in work demands, mental stress and ergonomically designed workstations can have a major influence on decreasing injuries and can help impact the effectiveness of work pacing interventions.

Comprehensive approach
A comprehensive approach is the best way to reduce WMDs for computer users. Start by taking an assessment of the workplace to identify the risks. This includes a review of workers’ compensation injury reports, employee surveys, workplace design, workflow, stress and individual evaluations. Next, educate employees and supervisors on ergonomic principles. Based on the analysis, provide ergonomic workstations or changes that address WMDs. Effectively address injuries when they occur.

And finally, have an ergonomics plan that offers positive reinforcement, health promotions and wellness services. As with any successful plan, provisions should be made to track the results and make changes as necessary to maintain its effectiveness.

WMDs account for 34 percent of all lost-workday injury and illness, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The National Academy of Science concluded that an estimated $50 billion is lost by businesses every year from sick leave, decreased productivity and medical costs linked to repetitive stress disorders. Ultimately, implementing a solid ergonomics program not only provides computer users with a healthy and productive workplace, but it’s cost-effective. Prevention and being proactive are keys to success.

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