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Ergonomics is Back on The Radar Screen

July 1, 2004
Related Topics: Ergonomics and Facilities, Featured Article

In the face of economic gyrations and regulatory swings, Wendi Latko, Xerox Corp.’s manager of workplace safety, is the Energizer bunny of ergonomics. Since 1997, her mission has been to make the jobs of employees--everyone from field staff to factory workers--easier and to avoid what she deems avoidable: injuries related to repetitive tasks and overexertion. "We look at ergonomics as a science and constantly look at the fundamental and the physical demands of each job," she says about an ergonomic mandate begun at Xerox in the early 1990s.

    Some recent ergonomic steps have been simple. Workers at remote locations, those who work at home or at sales offices like the one in Des Moines, Iowa, which has only a handful of people, use digital cameras to photograph their workstations. They then e-mail the photos back to the main office, where ergonomic experts can offer recommendations on how to make the space more comfortable.

    Other changes have been more complex. When Xerox’s new production press was introduced in 2002, it included an ergonomic alteration that was recommended during the design process. Thanks to a Xerox ergonomist’s input, the 78-inch-tall machine has a flexible rail inside that makes it easier for repair technicians to remove a 61-pound transport that moves paper from one section of the machine to the other. So when there’s a jam, the worker just slides the piece out to repair it instead of lifting it out, which could cause back or wrist injuries.

    Latko says it’s hard to quantify how much these changes cost the company, but she knows that as of 2002 such initiatives had contributed to a 40 percent drop in musculoskeletal injuries among its U.S. workforce since 1992, when workers’ compensation claims attributable to such problems peaked at Xerox. She did estimate that return on investment for the wide range of ergonomic moves has been roughly two to one.

    "There are two reasons why we do these things," she says. "One is the moral imperative. We don’t want to injure our employees. And the other issue is economic--direct workers’ compensation costs and the indirect costs such as loss of productivity or having to replace workers."

    That kind of ergonomic fervor is reminiscent of the 1990s, when repetitive motion and carpal tunnel became part of the workplace vernacular. Almost everyone wanted a newfangled adjustable chair; and there was endless debate over whether ergonomics was real science or witchcraft. But the issue of ergonomics fell off the radar screen for many businesses in 2001, when the economy was floundering and Congress killed federal regulations mandating universal standards.

    Regardless of the reasons leading to a corporate ergonomic anemia, it’s time for businesses to take another look. Federal regulators have recently stepped up their efforts to fine companies with major ergonomic problems in the workplace. And at a time when companies are trying to cut costs and get the most out of their workforce, firms that have kept an eye on ergonomics in recent years, investing in equipment and training, can now point to major benefits, everything from insurance savings to a reduction in employee sick time.

    "People aren’t breaking down the door to do all this stuff these days," says Patrick Tyson, a partner of the Atlanta office of Constangy, Brooks & Smith, which represents businesses. "The more forward-thinking employers have seen this as an important issue for years," says Tyson, former acting assistant secretary for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, "but there are a number of employers who don’t believe that ergonomic stuff will save money."

    Ergonomic initiatives, he adds, "are one of the no-brainers in the health and safety world. If you have jobs that have frequent repetitive motion or heavy lifting, I can guarantee you’ll have injuries as a result."

"We look at ergonomics as a science and constantly look at the
fundamental and the physical
demands of each job."

    The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 58,576 cases of repetitive-motion injuries in 2002 and 208,260 cases involving overexertion due to heavy lifting. These types of injuries cost companies billions of dollars annually, and that’s at a time when workplaces appear to be getting safer. An October study put out by Liberty Mutual Group, one of the largest providers of workers’ compensation insurance, found that the cost of workplace injuries resulting in six or more days away from work grew 13.5 percent between 1998 and 2001. At the top of the injury list was overexertion, accounting for $12.5 billion in costs for businesses in 2001. Repetitive motion ranked sixth, with a $2.9 billion tab. Insurance and workplace experts suspect that medical inflation is the main factor behind the escalating costs. But they also point to the growing level of severity per injury that is occurring because workers are stretched thin doing more with less staffing today. The graying of the working population may also be making matters worse.

    Nevertheless, companies small and large that keep an eye on workplace hazards appear to be reaping benefits.

    Two years ago, Mike Rainville, owner of Maple Landmark Woodcraft in Middlebury, Vermont, invited local OSHA regulators and loss-control experts from his insurer to take a look at his factory, which employs 30 people who make wooden toys. The move was prompted by a few incidents of repetitive-motion injury caused by tasks such as hammering wheels into toy cars over and over again. After a review of the assembly line, he decided to rotate the workers. It was initially a tough go. "People just wanted to do one job every day and didn’t want the stress of having to do something different." But thanks to ergonomic education provided by the insurer’s staff and constant preaching on Rainville’s part, the rank and file were swayed.

    Rainville also invested in new chairs with wheels so workers could move their own seats from station to station. He rebuilt the line to accommodate hourly rotations for workers. His investment: about $7,000 to date. But injury rates across the firm have dropped to zero, and he has seen a savings of $8,000 annually.

    Last year, Milwaukee-based Rockwell Automation Inc., which employs 20,000, embarked on a project for its punch-press operators, who feed large sheets of metal weighing up to 1,000 pounds into a stamping machine. The workers were manually shoving the pieces into the machine, and the company noticed a rise in shoulder injuries as a result. To deal with the problem, the company purchased two $26,000 hydraulic fork trucks to lift the metal dies and spent another $30,000 for new storage rakes that would make it easier for workers to get the dies off the racks. The firm, which provides industrial power and information products and services, also spent $30,000 to evaluate about 250 of its office employees and adjust keyboards, chairs and computer mouse use, says Cally Edgren, senior safety engineer at Rockwell.

    From 2002 to 2003, the company experienced a 33 percent drop at its Milwaukee site in recordable ergonomic cases. So far this year, none have been reported.

    One of the risks of these evaluations, says Brett Jorgensen, manager of safety and environmental services for Rockwell, is that everyone will start requesting new chairs or phones when there is no ergonomic necessity. But he maintains that they make purchases only as a last resort. And there are occasions when a worker injury occurs outside work but manifests itself in the office or on the factory floor. "We give them intervention whether we own it or not," he says.

    If keeping workers healthy and productive isn’t enough of a motivator, regulators may be adding fuel to the fire. Many executives and business owners breathed a sigh of relief when Congress repealed OSHA’s proposed ergonomic rules in 2001. Without a federal standard, the agency promised to put together voluntary guidelines with the help of industry. To date, only three sets of voluntary guidelines have been inked--nursing homes, retail grocery and poultry processing.

    But the lack of a mandated standard doesn’t mean OSHA isn’t watching.

    After what appeared to be a lull in ergonomic activity during 2001 and 2002, the agency has picked up the enforcement ball and issued 13 citations to date, mainly against nursing-home operators. Regulators are using the so-called "general duty clause," which requires companies to provide a workplace "free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees."

    The citation list also includes Coca-Cola Enterprises Inc.’s bottling unit in Cincinnati and Minneapolis-based SuperValu Holdings Inc.’s grocery warehouse in Hazelwood, Missouri. Both are contesting the citations, which contend that certain workers were required to lift heavy objects and were engaged in repetitive motions, among other things, that caused ergonomic injuries. The penalty against Coca-Cola is $4,500 and the one against SuperValu is $6,300. While the fines are relatively small, a source close to the case said OSHA’s recommendations for workplace changes would be costly. Neither company would comment.

    While Randel Johnson, vice president of labor policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C., says that he has no problem with OSHA making legitimate claims, he suspects that some ergonomic citations are based on "flimsy evidence." When it comes to ergonomics, "it’s unclear what works and what doesn’t work."

    Some companies are hoping to influence OSHA and the regulatory environment from the inside. Last summer, Johnson & Johnson Inc. formed a partnership with OSHA to help the firm further enhance ergonomic efforts that began in 1995 and also to share its best practices with the agency and other firms, says Joseph Van Houten, executive director, worldwide health and safety, at the New Brunswick, New Jersey-based firm. He says the plan is to work with OSHA to offer input on regulatory strategies that won’t be financially devastating for businesses and to encourage regulators to "consider all views when they put regulatory schemes together."

    Johnson & Johnson’s approach includes in-house ergonomics experts and monitoring of potential problems, he says. The company is just beginning to implement a filtering tool that its 100,000 employees worldwide can use to evaluate their computer workstations. Employees identified as high risk will have their workstations evaluated by ergonomic specialists.

    "Every Johnson & Johnson employee has some degree of ergonomic risk in their job," Van Houten says, adding that the firm’s efforts have thus far meant $18 million in cost avoidance since the mid-1990s.

    Throwing money at ergonomics injuries might not be a panacea, says Richard Rossiter, chief executive officer of Rossiter & Associates, a Cincinnati-based workplace and health consultant on repetitive injuries. He has seen factories pony up millions to retool a production line because of recurring elbow problems, only to be hit with complaints of shoulder and wrist troubles several months later. "In-house stretching programs, for example, can solve a lot of ergonomic problems without huge investments of money or time," he says.

    Marvin J. Dainoff, director of the Center for Ergonomic Research at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, advises companies to focus on homegrown ergonomic initiatives instead of just relying on outside consultants and the latest ergonomic products. "Ergonomics is not about gadgets," he says. "It’s about problem solving and getting into good work postures that are efficient, healthy and pleasant."

Workforce Management, July 2004, pp. 59-61 -- Subscribe Now!

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