“But What If I Don’t Have Ergonomics Injuries?” The True Cost of Inaction

October is National Ergonomics Month, and it’s the perfect time for employers everywhere to take a step back and revisit their ergonomic programs, especially in workplaces where ergonomic risks might not be so easy to see. You may think you don’t have to worry about workplace ergonomics because you’re not seeing the immediate costs and consequences of recordable injuries, but the reality is that you probably have bigger issues than you may first realize.

Let’s take a look at some of the ways that ergonomics problems may be impacting your employees and your business, even if you don’t know it yet.

The Tell-Tale Signs

Ask a most people about things like “reducing costs from safety incidents” or “the ROI of safety,” and the first thing they will likely think about is recordable injuries. That’s understandable. Statistics for recordable injuries and associated worker’s compensation costs are attention-grabbing, and easy to see and document. Most of us probably already generate regular reports, pie charts and line graphs showing workplace injury trends and the dollar costs associated with them. The fact of the matter is that these statistics can lull us into a false sense of security that recordable injuries are the only “real” health and safety costs that impact the business. If your recordable incident rate is below the industry average, it can be easy to conclude that you have low or even non-existent health and safety risks. Unfortunately, that just isn’t so.

The thing is, ergonomics risk factors don’t always result in recordable injuries. They can, especially if behaviors aren’t corrected, but they don’t have to end up as entries on your OSHA 300 log to start having an adverse impact on your business.

Ergonomics risk factors typically result from an improper fit between the workstation and the employee, causing musculoskeletal discomfort. This discomfort can manifest itself through one or more observable behaviors, including:

  • Self-massaging and rubbing affected body parts, such as the arm, elbow, wrist or neck
  • Tensing or shrugging the shoulders, in an attempt to loosen them
  • Squirming in a chair because of lower back discomfort
  • Frequently standing or stretching because of tightness or pain
  • Recurring short breaks to take pain relievers to help manage pain
  • Opening and closing hands or stretching fingers to reduce hand strain
  • Voluntary wearing of wrist braces or elbow straps

The key point to note about all of the above examples is that all of them involve some kind of disruption of the normal work routine, or place a limitation on the employee’s activity. For instance, an employee who wears a brace or wrap must periodically adjust it throughout the workday, or has to stop working a number of times to stretch, take pain relievers, or otherwise cope with the discomfort. These are common issues that many employees will simply “tough out”, so it can be hard to identify potential ergonomic issues in your workplace unless you know what to look for.

What Are the Long-Term Effects?

There are many adverse effects that can arise due to ergonomics risk factors over a long period of time, the most obvious of which are debilitating musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) and repetitive stress injuries. Something less apparent is the fact that all of that time spent by employees tending to their strains and discomfort begins to add up, resulting in a surprising amount of lost productivity.

Employees are likely to take time off due to pain and discomfort, leading to an increase in absenteeism. If ergonomic risks remain unaddressed for an extended period time, employee morale can suffer which can cause “burn-out” and further reduce productivity and ultimately erode employee buy-in with your workplace EHS culture. This can discourage them from reporting other types of more serious or immediate hazards, and potentially damage your company’s overall safety performance. If workers get discouraged enough, they may even resort to leaving the organization.

Finally, it goes without saying that unaddressed ergonomic risks often lead directly to recordable injuries over time. All of these outcomes have the potential to adversely impact the success of your safety programs and result in significant costs, both in terms of lost productivity and worker’s compensation.

The ROI of Ergonomics

We’ve seen that unidentified ergonomics risks can easily lead to higher costs and lower productivity for your business, whether you know it or not. Now let’s look at the other side of the coin. What are the economic benefits of ergonomics interventions? What kind of ROI and other benefits can we expect?

Individual studies can vary in their results, so it’s sometimes more informative to take a look at a “meta-analysis” – a study of studies that combines and summarizes multiple findings. One such meta-analysis was conducted by the Puget Sound Human Factors and Ergonomics Society in conjunction with Washington State Department of Labor & Industries. It looked at 40 individual reports for office workers and found that on average, office ergonomics interventions increased productivity by 17%, decreased errors by 32%, and absenteeism by 46%. Best results were obtained when organizations implemented a comprehensive program with management support, addressed ergonomics at the design stage, involved employees in planning changes, and consistently re-evaluated the program to make continuous improvements.

Translating these benefits into ROI can also vary widely, depending on details of the work environment and the size of the company, among other factors. Still, many studies show significant payback for implementation of an ergonomics program. The Puget Sound meta-analysis of office environments showed an average 78% ROI and median of 50% over 0.4 years. The reason for such a high ROI is that the costs of implementing an ergonomics system tend to be comparatively low. Even if we assume a very conservative 3% increase in productivity from ergonomics interventions instead of the 17% identified in the Puget Sound study, results can be significant.

Let’s take the example of a company with 500 office employees, earning an average hourly wage of $15. Losing 3% of productivity would be the equivalent of 7 lost days per year per employee, assuming 240 business days per year. That would be 3,600 lost employee-days of work, company-wide, over that year. Assuming likely ergonomics implementation costs of under $10,000 annually, we’d only need to prevent the loss of 2-3% of those employee hours to pay for the program. Any improvement beyond that would be a net gain. Since most studies actually show high productivity improvements, it is very possible to achieve this.

The Cost of Doing Nothing

We tend to be psychologically predisposed to think “doing nothing” is the safest route, especially when there are not obvious risks that seem to demand correction. The reality, however, as shown by a large body of ergonomics studies is that there’s a cost for inaction. We lose productivity, in terms of lost employee hours, as well as through related factors like absenteeism. More broadly, we also lose a chance to improve. By not proactively addressing and correcting office ergonomics risks, we choose to have an incomplete safety program, one that excludes a large sector of our workforce from our EHS culture. That robs of us of critical insights we could use to improve safety for all employees, and that is a high cost to pay.

Let VelocityEHS Help!

The VelocityEHS Ergonomics solution allows you to deliver expert-designed, web-based ergonomics assessment and training resources to each of your employees, across each of your facilities, for much less than the cost of traditional on-site evaluation and coaching programs. In addition, with VelocityEHS you don’t just get expert-designed ergonomics software, you get the combined expertise and support of an entire network of licensed ergonomics professionals who will work with you one-on-one to resolve your most challenging ergonomic issues. Employees can monitor their own progress through a simple and engaging user interface, with access to an extensive built-in ergonomics knowledge base that empowers them to improve their own ergonomic behaviors. Employers gain full visibility of ergonomic performance throughout the organization, allowing them to accurately identify risks, improve productivity, and reduce costs.

VelocityEHS also offers a variety of expert ergonomics resources through our WebinarsWhite Papers & Guides and EHS Blog, to help you implement ergonomics best practices for your business.

To learn more about Ergonomics solutions from VelocityEHS, visit our website at www.ehs.com, or give us a call at 1.866.919.7922.