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Putting your employees in the best position to keep Workers' Comp costs down

Ergonomics is about the ability to fit the right jobs to the right people, based on physical ability and required tasks. By focusing on the physical set up of the workstation, the tools used and the work process, you can avoid a myriad of injuries, including musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).

It only takes four to five minutes to properly evaluate an office worker's positioning at a workstation. It's all about the proper height of the monitor and keyboard; the positioning of the keyboard is paramount in preventing upper extremity disorders and the height of the monitor, in relation to eye level, is what reduces back and shoulder strain. And unless you're hiring Gumby, make sure employees are facing their workstation head on instead of twisting their lower torso awkwardly. Office workers shouldn't have to be contortionists to get their job done.

Another area to look at in the office is the telephone. There's nothing like sticking a phone in the crook of your neck for two hours to cause a muscle revolt. Make the call to invest in a good headpiece system for your employees and you'll save money down the road. Here are some additional tips:

Working continuously in a sedentary position without breaks or movement can increase the risks for musculoskeletal injuries. By instituting a program of stretching exercises in both the morning and afternoon, a bus company in Iowa saw a drop in repetitive injuries from over 100 per year to just a few (none of them surgical), saving considerable dollars.

Sometimes the solution can be found in the local shoe store. Another company, a healthcare provider working with elderly and disabled patients, had an alarming number of leg and ankle injuries among its workforce. Turns out the majority of the workers were doing their job wearing improper footwear, opting for flip-flops, crocs and in some cases, stiletto heels instead of proper (and more practical) shoes. In a word, ankle sprains waiting to happen.

Proper ergonomics in the workplace go far beyond working at a desk or wearing the correct shoes. According to OSHA, "Common examples of ergonomic risk factors are found in jobs requiring repetitive, forceful, or prolonged exertions of the hands; frequent or heavy lifting, pushing, pulling, or carrying of heavy objects; and prolonged awkward postures. Vibration and cold may add risk to these work conditions. Jobs or working conditions presenting multiple risk factors will have a higher probability of causing a musculoskeletal problem. The level of risk depends on the intensity, frequency, and duration of the exposure to these conditions and the individuals' capacity to meet the force of other job demands that might be involved."

In 2002, a survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor reported that employees suffering from Repetitive Stress Injuries incurred in the workplace took a median of 23 days off work, while those who experienced a slip, fall, or trip took only seven, and those exposed to harmful substances took just three. It is now commonplace for managerial teams in many companies to require periodic breaks for employees whose jobs require repetitive motions.

The inherent risks of improper ergonomics can be traced back to the "2-Hour Rule":

In 2007, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reported that heeding proper ergonomic procedures could have prevented 32% of the Workers' Compensation claims in the construction industry. The cost of the average claim was $9,240.

By taking action, the benefits of proper ergonomics are bountiful, leading to high productivity, avoidance of illness and injury risks such as MSDs, less fatigue, a reduction in error rates, and increased satisfaction among the workforce.

It's all about education and training, and employers knowing how to put their employees in the proper "position" to avoid injuries and, in turn, costly claims.

This was adapted from an article by Terence Milford, ARM, CWCA, ChWCE, CBWA