Reduce Medical Claims: Workplace Ergonomics

Aug. 1, 2005
Six million workers suffer workplace injuries each year at a cost to U.S. business of more than $125 billion. Here's how to reduce those numbers.

There are two ways to reduce medical claims related to injuries and ergonomics. First, spend lots of money to totally automate the warehouse, eliminating all human activity. Second, spend no money and initiate awareness programs to teach people how to do their jobs safely. Obviously, the solution is somewhere between the extremes.

"Our program begins with educating managers in the field," says Dixie Brock, national warehouse safety manager, APL logistics (Chicago). "I've already got the buy-in from senior management, now I have to educate the people who are in contact with employees on a daily basis."

Managing health care costs can be an active or reactive part of a manager's job. More often it's reactive as he responds to claims or events that have already happened. Brock's approach, and the message she's been delivering for 15 years, is that manager's have to be active. They have to know what ergonomics is, what the employees' job functions are and how those job functions relate to injuries.

"If a manager has not been trained to operate a lift truck, or never worked along the pick face of a rack, he has no idea what the employee is up against or how injuries happen," says Brock.

Brock's program is not a one-size-fits-all approach. It's not even one-size-fits-most. With more than 80 locations in the U.S., only managers with local knowledge can be effective in assessing workplace injury potential. "Every company and every job is different. As companies evolve [through organic growth or acquisition] job functions change," she says. "New managers are not always aware of the new jobs they've acquired."

She cites a personal example. When her former company, GATX, was purchased by APL Logistics, she contacted corporate headquarters for a copy of its ergonomics program. At the time, APL's focus had been on the management links of the supply chain so its program dealt with keyboards and repetitive motion problems. "We were, and are, in the warehousing industry. We needed programs dealing with lift trucks and weight lifting," she recalls.

It starts with education
APL's safety and injury statistics are admirable. It wasn't always so. Brock says, "Since 1995 we've reduced our injury rate about 80 percent. The [warehouse] industry average [Occupational Safety and Health Administration data] is 10.1:1 and last year ours' was 4.02:1 of injuries to man hours. Currently we're at 3.0:1 and our goal is 2.5:1, which we consider world class."

The new program Brock started rolling out the first of June is not targeted at type-of-injury thinking. It's focused on what managers need to know about ergonomics because, through her research, Brock notes there is a frightening lack of awareness within the warehousing community.

"It's not that managers don't want to know this kind of thing." she says, "I suspect it's more the fact that everyone is busy, working hard and they don't have the knowledge to recognize a work practice that is potentially injurious."

Brock worked with APL's workers' compensation broker, Marsh & McLennan (New York), to create a program that begins with basic awareness education. It explains to managers, who might have only an "observational" knowledge of what lifting a carton means, what the danger signs are, for example.

"We're also teaching them the basic dynamics of the human body," says Brock. "We want managers to understand how ergonomics and the mechanics of the human body relate. Until they understand, and can recognize hazards, there's no way they can make an adequate assessment of the workplace or the workforce."

The other part of the program, the piece Brock sold to senior managers first, is about the cost of workplace injuries and how it impacts the company's bottom line.

"It's essential," she says, "for a manager to know how to balance the risk he's willing to accept in the warehouse with the dollars he's willing to spend." You can't, she adds, just throw dollars at an installation, or tell people about great equipment and not purchase it for them.

Brock cites the example of an installation within APL's system that combined knowledge and creativity to solve an ergonomic problem. "We have a small operation where the manager recognized the employees' need for properheight workstations to eliminate back strain," she says. "However, limited funds reduced the chances of making the expenditure. Someone came up with the idea of taking some idle pallets, stretch wrapping them and placing sheets of corrugated on top to create work tables at ' custom' heights for employees. The cost was negligible and the potential for injury eliminated."

Risk potential
When assessing where the risks are in an installation, Brock looks at more than basic workers' compensation claims or injury reports. "Knowing what happened is only part of the story," she says. "Progress is made by knowing why an injury occurred or what caused it."

Sifting through lots of data from last year, Brock identified the high-risk areas for the program just launched. "Most of our dollars spent on medical costs," she estimates 56 percent, "are in material handling and ergonomicsrelated cases." She adds that about 40 percent of all injuries in the company account for that 56 percent of dollars spent. It's also instructive to know what the risk associated with the injury might be. Was the injury the result of a one-time fluke, or was it an unsafe, common work practice?

Here's Brock's top four injury-generator list:

  • Ergonomics
  • Housekeeping (slips, trips and falls)
  • Industrial equipment
  • Hand tools

Why work hard to improve a business when it can all be lost on a single back injury. The funny thing (and it's not funny at all) is that 80 percent of all workers will encounter back problems at some point. And most back injuries occur over a period of time, not in the instance of bending over to pick up a pencil or lifting a carton higher than shoulder level. The adage of the straw that broke the camel's back is not far off the mark.

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