The Price of Worker Safety: Ergonomics Is a Major Health and Safety Issue for Business Owners, but Will Costs Keep Workers in Dire Straits?

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Day in and day out for two years, Thomas Johns (not his real name), an assembly operator with the Bing Group, plucked from a gasket 1/4-inch rubber pieces (half the size of an eraser head), which were then fused between two pieces of metal for insulation. But Johns' thick, stubby fingers made his job with the steel processing and metal stamping firm unbearable. He became a modern-day Jekyll and Hyde - mild mannered at night, edgy and cantankerous during the day.

The job was equivalent to "a person without fingernails trying to pick up a straight pin off a flat surface," says Ron Bingham, director and coordinator of training and safety with the Detroit-based firm, No. 13 on the BE INDUSTRIAL/SERVICE 100 list with $93.4 million in sales. Bingham went to a local drugstore and bought a $3 dental pick. "I asked him to try using it to take out the rubber pieces," he explains. Johns' personality immediately took a 180-degree turn. He was not only much happier, but more productive.

As simple as it may sound, that's what ergonomics is about, says Bingham, "identifying ways to make one's work more efficient and providing employees with a healthier and safer environment." Since helping Johns, Bingham has found other low-cost ways to deal with immediate problems, including buying floor mats so that workers don't slip on Oils, wrist braces for staffers who work at computer workstations, as well as foot stools.

Ergonomics, also called human engineering, is not new. In the past, however, it was seen more as an office-related fad. Now, it's a major health and safety issue for business owners.

Employee health is key in terms of productivity, says Marlene Green, president of the Comfort Zone, a black-owned office and computer consulting firm in Jersey City, N.J. "If people are comfortable," she says, "they'll work better. Injuries occur when people - unaware of ergonomics issues - work long hours in straining positions and under stress without a break." Green further adds that she views ergonomics as an investment. "You'll get your money back tenfold if you do it the right way, instead of skimping on the problem and a in for it in penalties and lawsuits."

According to the Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the number of work-related injuries is steadily on the rise, and the number of penalties issued against companies for ergonomic safety and health violations has also risen. Moreover, many companies have watched their workers' compensation insurance premiums escalate.

However, several black business owners fear that the cost of upgrading their facilities to meet certain ergonomic standards could be financially devastating, especially since many of these firms are already suffering from a lack of working capital.

Employees of black-owned and small companies tend to run a higher risk of injury because of expanded workloads, says Craig Ridley, president of Charlotte, N.C. - based Ergo-Tec Corp., a black-owned office and industry ergonomics consulting firm. "There tends to be fewer employees doing more work," Ridley says. "Like many employees, they often shrug off the symptoms until injuries occur."

Instead of waiting until problems arise, "you would hope the employer fixed up his shop so it would be a healthy workplace," says Gale Savers, president of Sayers Computer Sources (No. 27 on the BLACK ENTERPRISE/INDUSTRIAL SERVICE 100 list), a $55 million computer hardware company with 73 employees. "A lawsuit could cost companies five times the amount it takes to implement an ergonomics program," Sayers says. "So, it's i the best interest of the company to take care of these issues."

But even the Bing Group's Ron Bingham concedes that a company could go broke trying to address every ergonomics issue. "This is still a fairly new market, so the prices are sky-high for ergonomics furniture and equipment," he explains. He cites a forklift that makes it easier for a worker to move heavy materials - but costs $13,000. …