OSHA may have put ergonomics regulation on the back burner, but the issue is still simmering for employers who continue to develop programs to protect workers and save money.

The strong business case for ergonomics continues to motivate business owners to find ways to reduce repetitive strain through improved work practices, better equipment and automation.

Hospital heals its own

Dauterive Hospital in New Iberia, Louisiana, has earned recognition as an OSHA Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) site. The 103-bed facility has been especially forward-acting in its approach to ergonomics, explains director of quality management Don Kight. He says that acceptance into VPP and enhanced ergonomics were pursued in tandem, beginning in 1999.

“As part of our VPP process, OSHA recommended that we start an ergonomics program,” says Kight. Dauterive had a leg up in developing its program because rehab specialists and equipment are part of the facility’s infrastructure.

The hospital used in-house resources to research and develop its program. Back injuries, repetitive motion and penetrating injuries, such as those caused by needlesticks, were identified as the three top safety and health priorities. Employee involvement was the engine in a multi-year improvement process that led to Star status and a dramatic decrease in injuries.

Key factors to Dauterive’s ergonomics initiative include:

  • Plant-wide job safety analyses — one for every task.
  • Annual ergonomics training for all employees, which includes instruction in the anatomy of the spine, the importance of breaks and stretching, and proper sitting and lifting techniques.
  • Monitoring computer use. “As equipment is selected, the ergonomic impact is a primary factor considered,” says Kight.
  • Easing patient transfer by hydraulic lifting devices and other means.
  • A mandatory safety footwear policy that has contributed to a dramatic reduction in falls.
  • A checklist-style reporting system for ergonomic and other risks.

Driving the push

The level of commitment exhibited by Dauterive Hospital is not unusual among forward-looking workplaces, according to Mike Wynn, vice president of Humantech, a leading global ergonomics consulting organization. Despite the absence of an OSHA standard, Wynn credits a number of developments for driving the push for workplace ergonomics, including corporations’ affinity for the Six Sigma total quality management approach. One of the requirements of this popular method, says Wynn, is to be able to translate improvements into cost savings.

“It’s no longer enough to reduce injury rates; you need savings to go with it,” insists Wynn. The Six Sigma system brings a certain rigor to measurement, which can be achieved through a quantifiable assessment method developed by Humantech.

“Another thing we’ve seen this year more than ever is that corporations which in the past had viewed ergonomics as a function to be managed at the plant level now are becoming more centralized,” says Wynn. In addition, they’re seeking a better definition of who should be doing what and how to measure progress. Managing ergonomics on a site level often leads to inconsistent success, he says.

Impressive ROI

Humantech, whose clients are typically large businesses, trains on-site personnel to become coaches, “rather than somebody with a whip,” explains Wynn. Technology transfer is the name of the game — training trainers, licensing software, and educating managers. This has yielded significant return-on-investment for clients.

Money that results from reduced workers’ comp costs can be successfully returned to a company’s bottom line. “Many corporations recognize that there’s no pricing power in the marketplace today. Everybody is being driven to reduce prices, so reducing cost is very important,” Wynn offers.

Humantech works on two levels. “One half of the equation is employee involvement; we have a whole set of tools that help our clients capture employee insight and engage them” in the process. The second half of the equation is involving top management in a more sophisticated process of quantifiable risk assessment.

Typically, Humantech works with a business for a three-year period. The first year is devoted to launching a pilot project and establishing an infrastructure for change. During the second year, a large-scale training launch occurs, and the third year is for “targeted assistance.”

Time to act?

Making a concerted effort to improve workplace ergonomics will no doubt lead to action steps and eventual savings. Whether you’re hiring a consultant or going it alone, the first step, experts contend, is to assess your workplace. Once you know the problems, you can get about the business of making change.

Start with your employees — they’re in the best position to tell you where problems lie. Involve them in conducting job safety analyses and researching solutions. Call on your insurance or workers’ comp provider; it’s in their best interest, and yours, to help you cut your losses.

Adapted from a white paper written by Evelyn Sacks for www.safety.blr.com. Ms. Sacks also writes regularly for BLR’s OSHA Compliance Advisor. She may be reached at blredes@aol.com. Visit BLR’s Web site at www.blr.com.

SIDEBAR: Verizon gets the message

Humantech helped one of Verizon's call centers implement a participatory ergonomics process that led to $1.7 million in savings. Over two years, direct medical costs decreased 83 percent, work-related musculoskeletal recordables decreased 65 percent, and revenue increased more than $500,000 per year.

Major changes introduced by Humantech involved the personnel responsible for managing the process. Now at each center, a Site Ergonomics Champion, typically a member of management or a union steward, oversees the process and serves as a liaison to corporate ergonomics leaders. An Ergo Advisor at each location is responsible for tasks like ergonomic evaluations and workstation adjustments.

Also changed is the way the call center handles medical management of employee claims. Injured employees now are seen at an on-site therapy center. That change reduced the amount of time needed for a therapy appointment from four hours to one hour. This was especially significant, as workers were averaging 9.6 visits per injury. With more employees available, the center has seen a big boost in productivity. When added to savings realized from the on-site therapy center, the total was a whopping $1.7 million.