By Dolney, W. Patrick
Risk Management , Vol. 40, No. 5
Many employers are concerned about the legal ramifications of screening employees. None wants to be charged with discrimination. Until recently, the principal concerns were sex and age discrimination in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has prompted further concern about discrimination against the disabled.
Many risk managers have become increasingly frustrated with the challenge of controlling musculoskeletal injuries and cumulative trauma disorders. In recent years, back pain alone has had more impact on business and demanded more management attention than any other safety and health topic. Cumulative trauma disorders are also on the list of management's biggest headaches.
Attempts to eliminate manual and repetitive tasks from the workplace have often been difficult. In some cases the nature of operations may preclude the elimination of heavy, exhaustive work through engineering revision. When the technology does exist, the cost of automated or mechanical handling equipment is sometimes prohibitive and may require considerable time for acquisition and installation. Something can be done in the interim, however, to minimize employee exposure to injury while workplaces are suitably engineered.
One interim measure is pre-placement screening. The objective of pre-placement screening is to identify prospective employees who may be predisposed to injury so that they can be placed in positions where the risk of injury is minimized. While medical histories, physical examinations and X-rays are part of traditional pre-placement screening, these methods have not been totally effective in identifying people with histories of, or predisposition to, musculoskeletal injuries. A high incidence of sprain and strain injuries continues despite years of traditional screening.
During the past 15 years, there have been major developments in the ability to accurately assess the physical demands of a task and safely measure the strength of individual workers. This has led to the use of strength testing as a pre-placement screening technique.
The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has identified worker strength as a major risk factor in musculoskeletal injuries. Studies by D.B. Chaffin and others at the University of Michigan have shown that workers are three times more likely to be injured when performing jobs for which they have not demonstrated strength capabilities equal to or exceeding the job requirements. The fact that strength plays such an important role in musculoskeletal injuries is not surprising. What is important is that recent studies have identified the level of exertion at which injuries occur; the level of risk can be predicted more accurately now than in the past; and the technology now exists to allow safe, accurate and predictive testing. These advances have made pre-placement strength and endurance testing (PPSET) a more practical, economical and legal alternative than in the past.
IS STRENGTH TESTING APPROPRIATE?
Will a strength and endurance testing program help control employee injuries? In answering this question, management must consider a number of factors: ergonomic evaluations, medical facilities, legal interpretation, economic feasibility and practicality. As management sorts through the question, a few logical steps should guide the thought process. High stress tasks - those causing musculoskeletal injury - should be evaluated by a qualified ergonomist. The evaluation should identify the hazard causing injury (work site analysis), quantify the physical demands of the task (media and computer models), offer corrective measures to reduce the hazard (engineering controls) and calculate the residual task demands remaining after engineering changes have been made. Residual task demands may be sufficient to warrant additional controls, and PPSET may be an appropriate administrative measure to control the exposure. …