Ergonomics is the process of changing the work environment (equipment, furniture, pace of work, etc.) to fit the physical requirements and limitations of employees rather than forcing workers to adapt to jobs that can, over time, have a debilitating effect on their physical well-being. Companies of all shapes and sizes have increasingly recognized that establishing an ergonomically sensitive work environment for employees can produce bottom-line benefits in cutting absenteeism, reducing health care costs, and increasing productivity.
The most progressive of these firms have—after careful analysis of the workplace environment and the tasks that their employees have to perform—taken steps to modify that environment (whether in a shop floor or an office) to better fit the physical needs and abilities of workers.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), an element of the Department of Labor, defines ergonomic disorders (EDs) as a range of health ailments arising from repeated stress to the body. These disorders—which are sometimes also called repetitive strain injuries (RSIs), musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) or cumulative trauma disorders—may affect the musculoskeletal, nervous, or neurovascular systems. They typically strike workers involved in repetitious tasks or those whose jobs require heavy lifting or awkward postures or movements. These ailments often occur in the upper body of workers, causing injuries in the back, neck, hands, wrists, shoulders, and/or elbows. Carpal tunnel syndrome is the most well-known of these maladies, but thousands of employees have also fallen victim to tendonitis and back injuries over the years. Ergonomics experts say that EDs are particularly prevalent in certain industries. Cashiers, nurses, assembly line workers, computer users, dishwashers, truck drivers, stock handlers, construction workers, meat cutters, and sewing machine operators are among those cited as being most at risk of falling victim to ergonomic disorders.
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, work-related MSDs strike 1.8 million American workers each year. “These injuries are potentially disabling and can require long recovery periods,” wrote Charles Jeffress in Business Insurance. Jeffress was OSHA’s Assistant Secretary of Labor at the time of writing. “For example,” Jeffress wrote, “workers need an average of 28 days to recuperate from carpal tunnel syndrome, which is more time than necessary for amputations or fractures. MSDs are also very costly injuries.
Direct costs of MSDs total $15 billion to $20 billion per year. Indirect costs increase that total to $50 billion.
That’s an average of $135 million a day.”
OSHA has cited a set of risk factors that contribute to the likelihood of repetitive strain injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome. These include:
- Performing the same motion or pattern of motions for more than two hours at a time.
- Using tools or machines that cause vibrations for more than two hours a day.
- Handling objects that weigh more than 25 pounds more than one time in a work shift.
- Working in fixed or awkward positions for more than two hours a day.
- Performing work that is mechanically or electronically paced for more than four hours at a time.
In the mid-1990s, the issue of ergonomics became a subject of considerable debate between unions and industries. The AFL-CIO, for instance, called RSIs and job-related back injuries “the nation’s biggest job safety problem,” contending that more than 700,000 workers miss work each year because of these ailments. Certainly, for workers who are debilitated by carpal tunnel syndrome or some other injury, the consequences can be dire.
Long-term disability (with its attendant diminishment of financial well-being) is a real possibility for many workers who fall victim to RSIs. Some unions subsequently asked OSHA to impose minimum ergonomic standards, and OSHA responded by beginning work on basic ergonomic standards for businesses. The agency completed work on their proposal in the late 1990s; in 2000 the Clinton Administration issued regulations requiring businesses to reimburse injured workers’ medical costs, inform workers about repetitive-motion injuries, and compensate them at nearly full salary (90 percent for first 90 days missed) if they miss work due to ergonomic-related injuries. Supporters contended that these new ergonomics program standards would prevent an average of 600,000 ergonomic/musculoskeletal disorders annually (and 4.6 million work-related musculoskeletal injuries over 10 years) and generate $10 billion in savings each year.
Business owners and other opponents, though, claimed that compliance with the new ergonomics standards constituted an unfair burden on small businesses.
Some business interests estimated the rules would cost as much as $100 billion annually (OSHA placed the cost of the new regulations to businesses at $4.5 billion a year).
Critics also contended that OSHA overstated the extent of the problem of ergonomic disorders in the workplace.
In March 2001, the Bush Administration joined with the Republican-controlled Congress to reverse these new work safety rules. This move was widely applauded by small business owners and various business groups but, not surprisingly, denounced by labor unions and other workers’ groups.
Whatever the prevailing regulatory atmosphere, numerous business enterprises in a wide variety of industries have shown an increased interest in factoring ergonomics in to their operational strategies, heeding business consultants who claim that an ergonomically sensitive environment can produce major economic benefits for companies. They point out that businesses boasting such environments often see a lower rate of absenteeism, lower health care expenses, lower turnover rates, and higher productivity than do other businesses in the same industry.
For small business owners, building an ergonomically sensitive work environment can depend on a number of different factors. While instituting an additional work break or two during the workday (a simple step that is sometimes cited as a deterrent to development of carpal tunnel syndrome and other repetition-related injuries) does not require the business owner to make any additional capital expenditures, instituting physical changes can be significantly more expensive, especially for established businesses that are small. Buying ergonomic furniture or making significant changes in assembly line layout can be quite expensive, and while the owner of a new business may choose to take ergonomics into account with his or her initial investment, it may be more difficult for the already-established small business owner to replace still-functional equipment and furniture. Each small business owner must determine for himself or herself whether the long-term gains that can be realized from establishing an ergonomically sound workplace (employee retention, productivity, diminished health costs, etc.) make up for the added financial investment (and possible debt) that such expenditures entail.