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Ergonomics: a new science to prevent old pain

Sally J. Taylor

Joints forced to move repeatedly in positions contrary to their design will eventually scream in pain.

Wrists, backs, elbows, shoulders, knees, ankles, necks and other body parts are all subject to repetitive stress (or strain) injuries – also known as cumulative trauma disorders, repetitive motion injuries, occupational overuse syndrome, work-related upper limb disorder and overuse injury.

RSIs apply to the knot between the shoulder blades familiar to computer users. For card dealers, cashiers and data entry personnel, an ache and numbness radiates from the wrist. Bell hops, gardeners and retail workers deal with lower back pain. Meat cutters ache in their wrists, elbows and shoulders.



“Prevention is the key,” said Sandy Green, risk management analyst for the El Dorado County Risk Management Department.

Green’s job is to apply the principles of ergonomics to fit the workplace, tools and habits of the worker to prevent pain, lost work days, workman’s compensation claims and sometimes surgery or disability.



“It’s better to have us visit before an injury,” Green said.

For a decade preceding 1995, the number of reported cumulative trauma disorders jumped more than 600 percent, according to the Center for Workplace Health Information based on U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The situation could be a lot worse than numbers suggest.

For instance, California health care providers in 1988 reported caring for 7,214 carpal tunnel syndrome cases. Only 71 had been officially reported as workers compensation claims.

The economic toll is also substantial. Costs of RSIs quadrupled from 1987 to 1993, according to the Center for Workplace Health Information.

In 1993 alone, such injuries cost employers more than $20 billion for the 2.73 million workers who filed compensation claims. Indirect costs may run as high as $100 billion.

Prevention through ergonomic applications costs far less, from nothing when existing furniture can be rearranged to a couple thousand for new equipment. The median cost is estimated at $250 per person.

Awareness appears to be helping. In 1995, the last year for which statistics are available, the number of such claims decreased for the first time in a decade.

Government at various levels is seeking to hold back the onslaught of pain and claims. However, codifying ergonomics into law is fraught with problems.

What applies to one worker may hurt another. For instance, wrist braces help many suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome. But the wearer may adopt an awkward position that causes strain elsewhere.

Currently, federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards that require an employer to provide a safe and healthful work place, the “general duty clause,” can be applied to repetitive stress injury factors.

Though ergonomics may be an inexact science, often repetitive injury can be prevented by simple and inexpensive changes in the workplace and work habits. Use of ergonomic tools or equipment, adequate breaks, learning the body’s limits and taking exercise and stretch breaks help the body compensate.

Early detection can dramatically lessen the severity of the disease and cut medical costs and lost workdays.

Physical therapy, special strengthening exercises and movement restrictions have become the treatments of choice. Surgery is a last resort.

The first resort, changing the work station, saves pain and money.


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