Putting it simply, the term “ergonomics” is the study and application of fitting the job to the worker. Employers often treat ergonomics like the H1N1 virus; they are well aware of its existence but try to stay as far away from it as possible. The usual assumption is that ergonomics is too expensive. To the safety professional, however, the response to this consideration is obvious: “Too expensive … to keep your employees healthy?”

The fact is, in many instances workstation modifications, especially those in office environments, can be accomplished with little or no cost. Since ergonomics applies to a vast number of jobs, cost-saving measures are more readily discovered by taking a look at the big picture. With careful forethought and strategic pre-planning, your ergonomics program can realize significant cost savings over time.

Consider your specific challenges
Millions of workers spend their days at a desk performing a variety of tasks involving computers or other forms of input devices. As a result, the typical office worker spends much of his time sitting and keyboarding, activities that emphasize certain repetitive motions while leaving the rest of the body inactive. Over time, this can spell trouble in the form of claims for carpal tunnel syndrome and other workplace musculoskeletal disorders (WMD’s).

Since these types of injuries are not confined to the office, the principles of ergonomics must be applied to a wide variety of job tasks and processes. Ergonomic injuries (or more properly, illnesses, as they are cumulative) are not selective, and claims payouts for WMD’s include the entire spectrum of job classifications.

Six steps to an effective program
So, what exactly can be done to prevent these claims and avoid costs? Here are six ideas that will help you reap the benefits of an effective ergonomics program.

1. TRAIN AND EDUCATE EMPLOYEES. As with any other safety challenge, training is the most critical element for success. If employees don’t know what is expected of them when it comes to safety, failure becomes more likely. A good way to educate workers on the subject of ergonomics is to make them aware of the concept. While most workers have heard the term, you should not assume that they know anything beyond that. It is important to provide training sessions that explain risk factors specific to their day-to-day work as well as to provide the means of performing self-assessments to correct and improve what they can in their own work environment.

2. FOLLOW UP AND ELIMINATE THE RISK FACTOR. Make yourself available. During the training session, be sure to give workers the option of contacting you or another qualified individual if, after they have conducted their self-assessment, they find they need additional help. Short of a work study or site inspection, this is the quickest means of identifying inherent “accidents waiting to happen.” This type of activity also lets workers become involved and invested in their own well-being, which in itself is an added benefit to overall process improvement.

3. SUPPORT REPORTING. Make it clear that it is workplace policy to report the signs and symptoms (as explained in the training session) of potential ergonomic-related disorders. Early detection and timely intervention are the most sure-fire ways of avoiding WMD claims costs.

4. DO THE RESEARCH. Until recently, accurate and reliable information on ergonomics was hard to come by. Proposed legislation and the advent of the Internet have changed all that. In addition, your local OSHA or state agency will have the information necessary to help you jump-start your program or add value to an existing program, and they usually can offer assistance in the form of consultation or referral to other resources. Universities have also been funding studies in the field of ergonomics, and many are quite generous with their information. On the other hand, information supplied by vendors or manufacturers of ergonomic products may not always have sufficient research and testing to back up their claims.

5. PUT ERGONOMICS IN THE PLANNING PROCESS. Like most other safety issues, an ergonomics program is most effective when it is included in the planning process. This allows the necessary development of the concept to evolve with the overall business plan, leading to the discovery of ways to avoid costs and save money.

6. MONITOR RESULTS. After implementing the program elements, you should monitor activity and find ways to measure success. When employee awareness is heightened through training, it is not unusual to see a slight to moderate increase in the number of workers’ compensation claims filed. As mentioned, aggressive and timely intervention will prevent this in many instances, and historically ergonomics claims level out and diminish over time. Use this information to illustrate the progress of procedures that were put into place. There is no better way to prove a point than to present data that supports the plan as envisioned.

While the secret to a comprehensive ergonomics program is more complex than what has briefly been covered here, considering these six points can help with an overall effective strategy. It is not only possible for an employer to save money with a good ergonomics program; it will also help conserve their most precious resource — the health and productivity of their employees.