These disorders remain the leading cause of workplace injury and illness in the United States. What steps can companies take to prevent this costly disability?
Musculoskeletal disorders occur when a body part is worked too hard, placed in a forced or awkward position or stretched too far. Highly repetitive workplace tasks lead to fatigue, tissue damage, and eventually pain and discomfort. When the repeated trauma causes damage, it moves into a prolonged or permanent disability.
In 2009, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that there were 963,644 such cases with 283,800 of those cases resulting in employees missing work. As the leading cause of workplace injury and illness, musculoskeletal disorders account for 29.4 percent of all injuries and illnesses involving days away from work. The cost of lost work time combined with workers' compensation expenses can have a significant -- and negative -- effect on an employer's bottom line.
Proof in Numbers
According to bureau, the occupations reporting the highest number of such disorders involving days away from work in 2009 were laborers and freight, stock and material handlers; nursing aides, orderlies and attendants; and truck drivers. The median number of days being away from work for each injury for these occupations was 10 days. Across all industries, the incidence rate was 31.3 injuries per 10,000 workers.
If those statistics don't do it, what should definitely catch the attention of all employers is the fact that these numbers and rates reported to the bureau represent only a part of the total problem. The data collected is limited to cases involving one or more days away from work; they do not include injuries suffered by public-sector workers or postal workers, and they also do not reflect the underreporting of these incidents by employers.
Employers are required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to keep a record of workplace injuries and illnesses, but the majority of small businesses are not required to keep such records. OSHA estimates that one additional injury occurs for every injury that is reported. Other studies, such as Death on the Job by the AFL-CIO, estimated that only one in three workplace injuries and illnesses were reported on OSHA logs and captured by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. If correct, that would move the staggering 2009 total of 283,300 musculoskeletal injuries (with employees missing work) up to a shocking 851,400.
Along with experiencing decreased productivity when an employee is injured and out on workers' compensation, employers lose revenue. In a recent study, the National Academy of Social Insurance (Workers' Compensation: Benefits, Coverage, and Costs, 2008) reported that workers' compensation payments for medical care and cash benefits for injured employees were $57.6 billion in 2008, with medical benefits accounting for more than half of all benefits paid. Lofty totals, serious issue.
Start with Basics
Employers should establish a positive foundation when implementing or re-evaluating the workplace for potential musculoskeletal injuries. Begin by letting employees know that the company is serious about these injuries; encourage employee involvement in solving problems. Ask workers about tasks they believe contribute to pain or discomfort.
Next, employers can begin to recognize and understand the hazards and most problematic work conditions by reviewing incident/injury records, medical records and job analyses. Employers should conduct a risk assessment, and ergonomically address each work environment. Employees can be offered training to expand their ability to notice (and report) potential problems. Emphasize the importance of early detection and treatment of musculoskeletal injuries in order to prevent disability claims and lost work time.
From the gathered data and evaluations, employers can properly match the employee to the physical demands of the job. Employers should re-evaluate the physical demands each job requires, especially for de-conditioned and/or physically mismatched employees. Having written job descriptions with the essential job functions identified allows for less opportunity for injury. Post-offer, pre-placement functional capacity evaluations are also another option to explore. After implementing changes to tasks that pose a risk of musculoskeletal disorders, employers should monitor and re-evaluate to see if the new approaches have reduced or eliminated the problems.
When planning a new work process, employers should not forget about the economical importance to minimizing musculoskeletal injury risk factors. It will cost an employer less to build an ergonomically designed workstation than it will to care for an injured employee later on.
Next Step for Employers
As the leading cause of workplace injury and illness, employers should not take the issue of musculoskeletal injuries lightly. Prevention equals healthy employees, both higher productivity and quality of work product/service all accomplished at a lower expense. It improves employee health, well-being and satisfaction. It reduces frictional costs for employers and allows investment in their business. In order to avoid adding to the statistics, implement or re-evaluate your best practices. Ultimately, the strongest workers' compensation tool an employer can have is a safe and healthy workplace.
MARK NOONAN is a managing principal and the senior knowledge manager for workers' compensation for the Casualty Practice within Integro Insurance Brokers.
The opinions expressed in this column are the author's and do not reflect the position of this publication or Integro Insurance Brokers.
Read more at the WorkersComp Forum homepage.
September 29, 2011
Copyright 2011© LRP Publications