Ergonomics: Back to Basics

By Nickson, Stephen | Risk Management, December 2001 | Go to article overview

Ergonomics: Back to Basics

Nickson, Stephen, Risk Management

Concerned with the growing number of repetitive motion disorders among their employees, two risk managers implemented a program of exercise, awareness and positioning.

The premise is simple: Most work-related back injuries are preventable. That is what motivated Don Norris, risk manager of the City of Modesto, California, and Martin Buse, risk manager of the University of Colorado, to implement comprehensive back injury programming in their organizations. With the emphasis on prevention and behavior change, both organizations have experienced substantial reductions in the costs, prevalence and severity of work-related back injuries.

The goal of each program has been to achieve measurable reductions in workplace back injuries, increase productivity, and improve employee health and well-being. Both Norris and Buse enlisted the services of Blaine, Washington-based BodyLogic Health Management to help create programs that would complement their existing safety and health initiatives.

Employee groups within each organization underwent training exercises that focused on identifying unsafe workplace behavior and prescribing specific ways of performing the same tasks safely. By incorporating employee input and targeting individual work activities, this approach helped to ensure long-term compliance.

With the help of preventive maintenance tools such as stretches and exercises, employees from the accounting staff to maintenance personnel have been given the ability to make changes in their daily work behavior to prevent back injuries. For the University of Colorado and the City of Modesto, this has been translated into measurable results: a decrease in the number of avoidable back injury claims and a reduction in severity and recovery time when back injuries do occur.

A Big Problem

Since 1989, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has listed musculoskeletal disorders as a leading priority for research and prevention efforts in the United States. Over the past decade, increased awareness among industry groups has been reflected in a general decline in workplace injuries and illnesses requiring days away from work. But workplace injury numbers-especially in connection with the back-are a persistent problem that could be reduced with simple prevention efforts.

Approximately one-third of American workers are employed in occupations that may significantly increase their risk of developing back disorders or disabilities. Low back pain disorders are the most frequent reason for workers' compensation claims, and approximately 85 percent of the general population will develop low back pain disorders at least once in their lifetime. Of all workers' compensation claims filed, spine injuries are the most costly, accounting for 60 percent of all medical and indemnity dollars spent on worker injuries.

The risk management teams led by Norris and Buse were familiar with these statistics. "Back problems are a real issue, particularly for people over thirty-five," says Buse. "Employees are often more susceptible to back injuries at work, and weak backs affect the propensity to become injured and then the ability to recover."

The physical nature of a job can greatly influence the exposure and risk of back injuries. Recent examinations of work-related low back pain have identified lifting and forceful movements, and repetitive or static, awkward body posture resulting from bending and twisting as the main contributing factors to the development of back weakness and injuries.

A Modern Problem Needs a Modern Solution

Training in proper body mechanics-- including proper lifting and body posture-is an important way of controlling the risk of back injuries. This is critical for employees who work in physically strenuous jobs, but also for another sector of the workforce with a high risk for back injury: those whose job activities keep them in front of a computer all day. …

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