For many employers, ergonomic controls used to prevent musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) in their workforce are not feasible because the type of work frequently varies, lacking a controlled or predictable environment. In these scenarios, the individual risk factors of employees become more critical. Common issues like physical fitness, weight, arthritis and poor work practices can exacerbate injuries and severely complicate recovery.
“It probably comes as no surprise that people who are physically fit, maintain a healthy weight and ensure proper nutrition are less prone to injury, and if injured, tend to recover more quickly,” said Steve Simon, Senior Risk Control Manager at Safety National. “An employer may feel powerless in influencing any of these health factors, but the proper communication can identify potential issues related to their perception of the workplace. Is the employee not feeling supported in their role? Is there increased pressure to produce? Do they lack influence over their job duties? These can all impact the time and energy required to maintain a level of fitness.”
Employers seeking to mitigate individual risk factors for MSDs can start with these risk strategies.
There should be a focus on general ergonomics awareness in the workplace which can help employees to recognize and respond to MSD risks more urgently. Training can also help develop a team approach to build a consensus and problem solve ergonomic issues in the workplace. Ideally, more employee involvement with ergonomics is important since they have experience with the job demands and challenges. Training is not intended to have workers or managers diagnose and treat MSDs, but to raise awareness and knowledge of the type of health problems that may be work-related and when to refer employees for medical evaluation.
Training should also include educating employees on body mechanics methods to reduce biomechanical forces on the body. These methods include recommended lifting, lowering and carrying techniques, use of a fulcrum, feet positioning, safest body movements, use of equipment, handling aids, etc. Typically, physical therapists or professionals with occupational health backgrounds and experience can assist with the development of body mechanics methods.
2. Healthcare Management Strategies and Policies
Health insurance providers often provide services to engage employees in the control of their well-being. They can help educate workers on the signs and symptoms of MSDs and the individual risk factors that can affect those injuries. Education can encourage early reporting from employees and prompt evaluation by healthcare providers. Employers can also allow healthcare providers to become familiar with jobs and tasks associated with their workplace to identify common issues.
3. Wellness Programs
Research has shown that physical activity can decrease pain, improve overall function and delay disability for people with arthritis, the most common cause of disability in the U.S. The right wellness program, developed in efforts between human resources, safety officers and wellness coordinators, can encourage physical fitness, lower stress and decrease the risk for osteoarthritis and the pain and disability accompanying arthritis. Weight management programs and subsidized gym memberships can be offered through healthcare providers, and employers can also offer health challenges at work.
4. Disability Management and Return-to-Work Policies
Injured employees typically need assistance with re-entry to the workforce through transitional work and reasonable accommodations. Identifying low-impact duties and communicating with the injured employee’s physician can help facilitate the right return-to-work process. Injured employees also need to feel supported and acknowledged as an integral part of the workplace. This can go a step further in reassuring all members of the workforce that their employer will provide them with the support they need in the event of a disability.