ergonomic solutions for musculoskeletal disorders

How To Reduce Costs of Musculoskeletal Injuries with Ergonomics

Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSD) are a major cause of injury in the food processing industry.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, MSD injury rates are higher in food manufacturing than the average of other manufacturing industries. In 2008 alone, the food manufacturing industry as a whole reported 12,170 cases of MDS injuries that resulted in days away from work.

Reaching across a conveyor, lifting heavy loads, twisting and bending at a work station, performing repetitive tasks are common in food processing facilities — and all can lead to a serious MSD injury.

What is a Musculoskeletal Disorder?

Ergonomics Plus provides a comprehensive definition of MSD:

Musculoskeletal Disorders or MSDs are injuries and disorders that affect the human body’s movement or musculoskeletal system (i.e. muscles, tendons, ligaments, nerves, discs, blood vessels, etc.).

This includes:

  • Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
  • Tendonitis
  • Muscle / Tendon Strain
  • Ligament Sprain
  • Tension Neck Syndrome
  • Thoracic Outlet Compression
  • Rotator Cuff Tendonitis
  • Epicondylitis
  • Radial Tunnel Syndrome
  • Digital Neuritis
  • Trigger Finger / Thumb
  • DeQuervain’s Syndrome
  • Mechanical Back Syndrome
  • Degenerative Disc Disease
  • Ruptured / Herniated Disc
  • and many more

Each of these disorders is accurately named, as they cause damage to the musculoskeletal system, often over years of improper and unsafe movements.

Work-Related Risk Factors

According to Ergonomics Plus, MSD’s have a main cause.

When a worker is exposed to MSD risk factors, they begin to fatigue. When fatigue outruns their body’s recovery system, they develop a musculoskeletal imbalance. Over time, as fatigue continues to outrun recovery and the musculoskeletal imbalance persists, a musculoskeletal disorder develops.

awkward posture

Primary Risk Factors

There are three primary risk factors that lead to musculoskeletal disorders.

  • Forceful Exertion. Exerting great amounts of force over a long period of time can result in fatigue and physical damage to the body. Even single exertions of force, whether small or great, can lead to damage if not performed properly.
  • Awkward Posture. Awkward postures are those in which the joints are held or moved away from the body’s natural position. This places excessive stress and force on joints and overloads the muscles, leading to fatigue. When joints are worked outside of this normal range for long periods of time, the risk for MSD’s increase.
  • Repetitive Tasks. Highly repetitive movements, those performed over and over again for extended periods of time, can wear away at joints, muscles, and tendons and lead to MSD’s. These movements are often found in positions with hourly or daily production targeted roles.

Secondary Risk Factors

While not as serious, there are a number of secondary risk factors that experienced over long periods of time can lead to MSD’s.

  • Contact Pressure. Any point where external pressure is applied to soft tissues of the body can become a point of injury. Holding tools where handles press into parts of the hand is an example.
  • Vibration. Prolonged exposure to vibration can cause damage to nerves and blood vessels.

When exposed to these risk factors, especially over longer periods of time, the risk of developing an MSD increases.

The High Cost of MSD Injuries

Musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) injuries come with a high price tag.

forceful exertion

According to Fit2WRK, the direct cost for all U.S. workers out of work due to MSD injuries is estimated at $13-20 billion annually, with indirect costs between $26 and $110 billion annually.

Direct Costs

Most companies track the cost of injuries by tracking direct costs, as they are the easiest to see and track.

Direct costs include:

  • Worker’s compensation premiums
  • Case management
  • Medical costs for surgery and rehabilitation, including emergency room visits, doctor visits, and medical bills
  • Medicine costs
  • DME or auxiliary aids

Depending on the severity of the injury, direct costs can range from relatively low to incredibly high.

Indirect Costs

Direct costs are only a small part of the equation.

According to R. Gange, the VP of Worker’s Comp and Disability at Fit2WRK, “The direct costs are literally just the tip of the iceberg. Indirect cost multipliers for work-related injuries range from 3 to 10 times as direct costs!”

Indirect costs are the unbudgeted costs associated with an injury in order to get the employee back to pre-injury status.

Indirect costs include:

  • Lost/decreased productivity
  • Time to go to medical appointments
  • Production downtime
  • Administrative costs
  • Additional overtime pay required
  • Time to replacement hire
  • Interviewing and training new employees
  • Delays in shipments and filling orders
  • Unwarranted negative media attention/reputation loss
  • Potential OSHA penalties
  • Attorney fees
  • Damages to equipment, machinery, materials, and facility
  • Higher Worker’s Comp premiums
  • Degraded client loyalty and support
  • Managerial costs due to the accident including inspections, investigations, meetings, and administration
  • Loss of employee time associated with assisting with the accident, administering first aid, and witness interviews
  • Loss of employee morale

Days Away from Work Costs

Musculoskeletal injuries are a primary cause of days away from work.

According to research done by The Burden of Musculoskeletal Diseases in the United States, musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) accounted for nearly one-third (30.5%) of the 933,200 injuries involving days away from work in 2010. In addition, MSD injuries consistently across the years result in more median days away from work than all workplace injuries.

As any employer knows, days away from work, especially due to injury, can be expensive.

The National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI) found that the average lost-time workers’ compensation claim costs the employer $29,400 in medical expenses and $23,600 in indemnity, or wage replacement, costs.

Let’s break this down for the food processing industry.

A BLS report states that the food production industry saw injury rates in 2008 of 6.2 cases per 100 full-time workers.

If half of those injuries were a lost time claim, the direct worker’s compensation costs would be $159,000 with indirect costs that typical double this number — $318,000 for 3 claims.

The average profit margin among the top 10 food producers is only 13%, meaning an employer with just 100 workers would have to generate nearly $2.5 million in new revenue just to cover the cost of work-related injuries.

Reducing the Risk of MSD’s with Ergonomics

While the cost and risk factors of MSD’s can seem overwhelming, there is hope.

ergonomic work station

With a few changes to workplace design, a small investment in equipment, and the right plan, MSD’s are highly preventable — reducing the risk that your company will face the high cost of MSD injuries.

It just takes some knowledge of ergonomics.

What Are Ergonomics?

Simply put, ergonomics is the study of how to improve the fit between the tasks of the job and the employees who perform the work, so as to reduce the exposure to MSD risk factors.

By studying the movements associated with a particular task, it can be easy to see the risk factors that lead to MSD’s. Once the risk factors for a particular task are seen, it becomes much easier to make adjustments to prevent those harmful movements.

What are the Benefits of Ergonomics?

There are a number of benefits associated with implementing ergonomic solutions into your facility.

Washington State Department of Labor and Industries reviewed 250 case studies on the effects of ergonomics, and found five main benefits:

  • Ergonomics reduces costs. When employees aren’t exposed to the risk factors of MSD’s, the incidents of those injuries drops dramatically — when done correctly, all the way down to $0.
  • Ergonomics improves productivity. Reducing fatigue on the body, proper posture, and fewer movements allow workers to be more productive for longer periods of time, something every employer would love to see.
  • Ergonomics improves quality. When employees are properly equipped for the task at hand and aren’t fatigued, they are capable of doing their best work.
  • Ergonomics improves employee engagement. A safe employee is a happy employee, and a happy employee is an engaged employee. Reducing the risk of fatigue, discomfort, and injury improves employee morale and engagement.
  • Ergonomics creates a better safety culture. Experiencing the four benefits above creates a better safety culture in your company.

There’s one more benefit not called out in the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries’ study:

  • Ergonomics reduces the need to replace equipment. Implementing ergonomic solutions, such as ergonomic stands, proper training, and safety equipment, can improve the safety of older equipment, eliminating the need to upgrade or replace it.

Getting Started with Ergonomic Solutions

injuries in food processing plants

Implementing an ergonomic process is a smart and cost-aware solution to preventing and reducing the costs of MSD injuries, but how do you get started?

1. Develop an Evaluation Plan

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends starting by developing an evaluation plan — determining the potential baseline, process, health outcomes, and organizational change measures to improve the safety in your facility.

It sounds more overwhelming than it is.

A number of companies provide ergonomic evaluations and game plans to help you get started and determine what risk factors are prevalent in your workflow.

2. Identity Problems

Once an evaluation plan is developed, it’s time to put it to use to identify the problem areas in your workflow.

Someone from your company or an outside consulting firm will evaluate each task to pinpoint the primary and secondary risk factors for MSD’s and make recommendations on how to reduce or eliminate those risk factors.

3. Implement Solutions

There are a number of ergonomic solutions that can be implemented to reduce exposure to primary and secondary risk factors. You can find those solutions below:

4. Evaluate for Effectiveness

Once solutions are in place, take time to evaluate the improvements and measure their effectiveness. This will help you determine if more solutions need to be implemented.

Don’t Wait for an Injury!

The best time to begin an ergonomic process is now — before incurring the high cost of an MSD injury.

With the high risk of injury found in the food processing and manufacturing industry, it’s only a matter of time before someone in your facility is injured. Don’t wait for that to happen!

An ergonomic consultation and ergonomic equipment are small investments that save you money compared to the high cost of an injury.