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Improve Safety and the Bottom Line With Ergonomics

There is a costly danger lurking at jobsites; a threat that isn’t easily seen until it is too late—musculoskeletal disorders (MSD). Construction managers, foremen and safety specialists who enact preventative ergonomic measures on the jobsite will not only improve safety, they will also reduce potential injuries for workers—and ultimately save a business from sinking in the red.

The U.S. Department of Labor states it is “estimated that employers pay almost $1 billion per week for direct workers’ compensation costs alone.” Direct costs are fees accrued from workers’ compensation payments, medical expenses and any fees for legal actions. In reality, this number is higher because of indirect costs such as:

  • Employee time off from work for treatment;
  • Hiring a temporary employee;
  • Time to complete the required OSHA paperwork; and
  • Productivity loss due to mandatory limited-mobility orders by a doctor (to allow the injury to heal).

An insidious aspect of musculoskeletal disorders is that they may be affecting productivity before an injury’s symptoms are detectable. Workers affected by poor ergonomics will slowly accumulate damage to muscles and will experience gradual loss of strength and endurance.

The 2017 Liberty Mutual Worker Safety Index points out that the largest source of injury cost is overexertion and OSHA adds that overexertion can lead to MSDs, citing several risk factors such as:

  • working in an awkward posture;
  • keeping the same posture for long periods of time;
  • exerting excessive force such as lifting, pulling or pushing heavy loads;
  • performing the same repetitive task;
  • localized pressure in a body part; and
  • vibration.

The Financial Impact of Injury

Common injuries are often measured by their medical cost alone. The medical cost along with the potential time away from work could be a further source of cost.

The injuries that workers experience can be painful—even debilitating—and frequently require time off from work to heal. Many occupations that demand repetitive motion are prone to inflammation. While it seems minor, inflammation can spiral into a vicious cycle ending in degraded muscle and/or torn tissues or carpal tunnel syndrome.

The majority of upper body injuries result in a medical diagnosis of carpal tunnel syndrome. On average, medical bills amount to $30,000. Employers are responsible for paying direct fees (e.g., medical bills and paid leave for treatment) as well as the indirect fees (e.g., injury investigation fees, the financial impact of slower productivity and the time it takes to file OSHA paperwork). Frequently, the indirect cost is more expensive than the direct cost. As the workforce ages and works beyond traditional retirement years, the impacts of MSDs will become a larger strain.

Injuries occur to all age groups without large variation. As workers age, there is an increase in how long injuries will remove them from work.

On average, musculoskeletal disorders tend to keep older, veteran workers out longer due to slower recovery. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows the average time off from work for an employee age 45 to 65 (and older) is between 12 and 17 days. The void of an experienced worker may slow productivity and could increase the margin of error because a less-experienced worker will need to fill in.

The most prevalent injuries due to poor ergonomics are sprain, strains and tears

The Experience Modification Rate (EMR), the rate that insurance and workers compensation charges a company, is a concrete measure of MSDs’ impact upon a business and is sometimes a deciding factor in choosing bids for contracts. EMR is calculated by the number of injuries (large and small). Companies will experience a higher rate with several small injuries, compared to the rise they would experience with one large injury with the same total cost. In other words, many small ergonomic injuries such as sprains, strains and tears that are forming due to poor ergonomics could harm the future ability of a company to successfully win contract bids.

Prevent the Threat of MSDs

The financial threat of musculoskeletal disorders is real for construction companies and should be mitigated. Employers need to implement proper ergonomics to reduce the risk of injury. Invest in tools that alleviate strenuous exertion and perform repetitive tasks for employees, such as battery-powered hydraulic tools for cutting or crimping or equipment that lifts heavy objects. These can be carts for transporting heavy material, straps, handles, hydraulic or powered lifts, and more. These types of tools are less expensive to purchase than paying for a back injury.

In addition, encourage employees to store heavy items off the ground and in smaller boxes, take breaks when tired and stretch. These are just a few of the ways construction managers, foremen and safety specialists can reduce musculoskeletal disorders, which lessens the threat of expensive bills from direct and indirect costs.

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