2-27-12; Ergonomics Program Management Decreases Workplace Injuries

With the economy recovering slowly, employers continue to watch as profit margins decrease. Even with only one injury, workers’ compensation (WC) costs can deplete employers’ financial assets at an alarming rate. Although the incidence of workplace injury has decreased by 50% since 1991, medical costs continue to increase and have tripled since 1982 (Bureau of Labor & Statistics). Interest in innovative WC management strategies continues to grow as employers struggle to reduce work-related injuries and their associated costs.

As part of this strategy, it is vital that during the healing process, injured workers continue to perceive themselves as valued employees and remain connected to the workplace. Establishing return-to-work goals immediately after an injury and providing timely information to treating physicians relative to physical job demands and transitional duty opportunities are critical for a successful return-to-work outcome. In fact, statistics show that when an injured worker is out of the workplace for as little as six to twelve weeks, there is only a 50% chance of that worker successfully returning to work. When that time lag increases to six months out of work, the chance of successful return to work to the date of injury employer becomes rare, and it is highly likely vocational case management may be needed to effect successful case resolution.

Ergonomics: Ergonomics is the perfect tool to utilize in minimizing workplace injuries and keeping costs in check. Implementing ergonomics will not only lower risk of injury to workers, it also frequently increases employee productivity, product quality, and morale. Ergonomics should be viewed as part of a continual program for process improvement, allowing flexibility to meet workforce changes. An Ergonomic Assessment (i.e., job analysis) enhances communication with any treating physician, setting forth pertinent job demands information that is essential in the return-to-work process.

The physician can use the Ergonomic Assessment to:

      Determine work-relatedness based on the analytical data supplied;

      Determine if the worker can  return to the same job; and

      Determine transitional or permanent work restrictions.

The employer can then strategically use that same Ergonomic Assessment to:

      Identify light or transitional duty throughout the workplace facility;

      Identify accommodations that could be made for injured workers; and

      Ensure workers are being placed into positions that do not exceed their restrictions and/or physical capabilities.

Furthermore, savvy employers position themselves in a proactive mode, using ergonomics to identify risk factors throughout the facility prior to any occurrence of injury. 

How can the employer be sure that there is a return on investment with this type of approach? The proof is in the pudding, or in this case, in the melting pot of ergonomic success stories from a large assortment of companies, including Dow Chemical; Intel Corporation; Duracell; L.L. Bean; Rockwell Automation; Quad Graphics, Inc.; and HON Industries. Following implementation of Ergonomic Assessments as part of ergonomics programs, each of the above-named companies have reported significant reductions in workplace injuries and WC costs. 

Causation: An Ergonomics Team can be instrumental in assisting employers with reduction of injury and associated costs. Case in point: Encore ergonomic assessments are frequently requested when causation is questioned. The written ergonomic assessment report has proven to be instrumental in assisting the physician to make an objective decision about the causality of an alleged work-related claim. For just one Encore customer, this resulted in a WC claim cost savings of $30,000 over a two year period, with a return on investment of 7:1. 

On-site Ergonomics: Working on-site at an employer, Ergonomic Teams frequently implement a comprehensive program to identify risk and, as part of that process, provide Ergonomic Assessments to document implementation of changes and reduction of risk factors. Case in point: the focus of one Encore employer program was to perform a plant audit to assess ergonomic risk and identify where injuries or symptoms were reported. Job physical demands were recorded for each job in the plant. Need for ergonomic changes were prioritized by injury occurrences and a plan was developed to affect the most employees in a systematic fashion. Communication with employees was also a priority, and weekly updates to the ergonomic communication board showed progress of the changes and invited employee input and participation. Over an 18-month time period following implementation, the employer realized an $180,000 reduction in WC costs. This ergo program produced a return on investment of 3:1.  In yet another mid-sized manufacturing company in southeast Wisconsin, Encore implemented a program wherein, over a six year period, the employer reported a 63% reduction in WC costs.

Summary: Successful injury management strategies require strong commitment and consistent effort by all levels of company management, thereby maintaining the health and safety of the workforce and work environment.  In this challenging economy, can this process be justified?  Is the implementation of some type of ergonomics worth the investment? As noted above, the results provide clear evidence that the answer is “Yes!”

For more information, please contact Suzanna M. Tomich MS, OTR/L, CPE, Ergonomic Consultant, Encore Unlimited, LLC, mobile: 262-271-6955, stomich@encoreunlimited.com or Julie Brekke, Wisconsin Manager, Encore Unlimited, LLC, mobile: 715-574-2148, jbrekke@encoreunlimited.com.