Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Ergonomics and CTDs: The Basics

Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Ergonomics and CTDs: The Basics

Article excerpt

Ergonomics is a rather new word, first introduced some 30 years ago to refer to the study of workers in their environments. Essentially, the word means "fitting the worker to the job." The field of ergonomics also is young, and many people - employers and employees alike - still know little about it. In the article, "Introduction to Ergonomics" (Forestry, 1992), the authors state that ergonomics consists of two major elements:

* A technical part, concerning the practical aspects of optimizing work places, machines, tools, etc., often called "applied ergonomics," and

* A human part, concerning the description and knowledge of physical and psychological characteristics of man, in terms of measures, reactions, needs, capacities, and limitations.

Accordingly, ergonomics is not a single science, but the application of many scientific disciplines, including anatomy, physiology, medicine, psychology, and economics.

Cumulative Trauma Disorder

We all have heard of baseball pitchers who develop various disorders in their pitching arms from the effect of forceful, repetitive motions executed with the arm in an awkward position or the long distance runners who suffer numerous lower-limb injuries.

Today, however, athletes aren't the only individuals who suffer on-the-job injuries or illnesses. And it is not just construction workers and those whose jobs require strenuous physical labor. As technology and other innovations invade our offices, a secretary or an accountant can suffer injuries - often without leaving their desks. During the last decade, an occupational illness identified as cumulative trauma disorders CTDs) has been occurring in epidemic proportions. The best known of these potentially disabling injuries is carpal tunnel syndrome, a cumulative, or gradual, injury to the wrist that is caused by repetitive motion (such as that used to work a computer keyboard). In addition, a variety of occupational illnesses/injuries - such as tendinitis, bursitis, and a majority of injuries to the lower back - can be considered CTDs.

By one characterization, CTDs have been called the "plague" of the last 15 years. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, more than 223,000 of the 368,000 work-related illnesses reported nationwide in 1991 were disorders associated with CTDs. In California, insurance premiums for workers compensation total about $8.5 billion annually, which amounts to one-fourth of the premiums paid for worker compensation nationally, according to the California State Department of Insurance.

Studies reveal that most serious and costly injuries to workers are caused by strains - injuries that occur because employees exceeded the physical limits of their bodies; lifting, lowering, overreaching, pushing, pulling, and carrying products or supplies are the main culprits.

In contrast strains in office personnel occur not from routine lifting of heavy materials but from routine sedentary behavior. Many employees suffer back problems from performing jobs that keep them in one position most of the day, such as sitting at a desk or operating a computer terminal. Others suffer injuries from being sedentary most of the day and then suddenly lifting a box of computer paper or reaching for an object on a high shelf.

The cost of CTD injuries can be quite high. In California, for example, the California Department of Insurance analysis of 1989 claims shows that average workers compensation claims for a "serious" CTD injury costs an insurer or self-insured employer about $20,000. Nationwide, estimates by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health indicate that one cumulative trauma injury - carpal tunnel syndrome, affecting the median nerve in the hand - costs $3,500 in benefits and up to $40,000 in medical costs.

In some cases, employers may incur additional costs in the form of civil lines. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has begun issuing heavy fines for repeated exposure to physical stress. …

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