Ergonomics: The Comfort Zone

Smart planning can take the pain and stress out of work for employer and employee alike

Momentum Textiles, an employee-owned company in Irvine, Calif., sells fabric to somE of the nation's biggest makers of ergonomic chairs and office furniture. But they'd never given ergonomics much thought when it came to their own cramped and poorly arranged work stations, where customer-service reps turned and twisted to reach big fabric swatch books and typed at unadjustable desks for hours on end.

About three years ago, one of those reps, Kimberly Salas, was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome, a painful inflammation of the wrist that made it impossible for her to perform normal household tasks or type at the computer (table, page F.36) "In the beginning, I was scared. I had never gone through this before. You don't know what your future is going to be like," says Salas, now 29, who lost about four months of work as a result of her injury and subsequent surgery. She has since undergone a second round of surgery for other work-related wrist problems.

Salas wasn't the only one to get hurt. By 1997, Momentum's management realized that 6 out of 13 reps and an accounting clerk had suffered hand, arm, and shoulder injuries that doctors linked to their working conditions. The company had to terminate three of them because it couldn't provide suitable work, says Momentum Chief Financial Officer Joanne DeHaven. A fourth decided to quit on her own. Only Salas and Cheri Curd, an accounting clerk, managed to return.

Morale plummeted as workers wondered if they'd be next and workers' compensation costs doubled. "It took a terrible toll on everybody," says DeHaven. Terrible, perhaps, but Momentum's experience is hardly isolated. So-called musculoskeletal disorders--also known variously as cumulative trauma disorders or repetitive strain injuries--represent the fastest-growing workplace injury in the country, accounting for 34% of all lost workdays due to injury or illness and $1 of every $3 spent on workers' comp claims, according to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration. These "wear-and-tear" injuries are caused by overuse or improper use of muscles, ligaments, or tendons of the upper body (table). Employees at greatest risk fall into two categories: those who perform the same movement repeatedly, whether on an assembly line or at a computer terminal, and those who remain in a static position for long periods of time--with their arms parallel to a computer keyboard, for instance, or hunched awkwardly over a drafting board.

While these injuries strike workplaces of all sizes, small companies tend to feel the human and financial impact more intensely. Losing even one key employee can be devastating, and often small businesses don't bring workers back to the job as quickly as larger employers because they lack the resources to accommodate them, says David Roy, an ergonomist and director of engineering/claims services for Travelers Property Casualty Corp., the fourth-largest workers' comp insurer in the U.S.

This month, OSHA is expected to release a final draft of proposed rules aimed at reducing musculoskeletal injuries in the workplace. These measures would require many companies to institute a formal ergonomics program, which involves evaluating workplace hazards, training employees, and, in some cases, buying new equipment. It's unclear when and if OSHA's ergonomics standards will pass, given opposition from small-business lobbies such as the National Federation of Independent Business, which want to block the new rules until more ergonomics studies are done. But there's no reason for you to wait until someone forces you to take stock of your company's ergonomic health. "If you take it seriously, it's a win-win situation, because when employees are comfortable, they do better-quality work and are more productive," says Marvin J. Dainoff, director of the Center for Ergonomic Research at Miami University of Ohio. "The side effect is that they don't get hurt."

Ergonomics, which is derived from ergon, the Greek word for work, is the science of fitting the work environment to the employee. It involves everything from evaluating how tasks are performed to how the body interacts with equipment. Studies over the past few years by the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health and the National Academy of Sciences have found strong evidence supporting the basic premise of ergonomics.

Paying attention to ergonomics can save you money in the long run. Travelers, for instance, tackled the problem as early as 1993, when it realized how costly workers' comp claims could be. After an internal ergonomics program reduced the average cost of a musculoskeletal disorder claim by its own workers from $20,000 to $4,600, Travelers sent ergonomists to look at the workstations of 85 Travelers-insured workers who had filed claims at small companies for musculoskeletal injuries. The consultants suggested simple improvements ranging from footrests to new chairs and checked up on the results 60 days later. "What we found was startling," says Roy. In 61 cases where employers implemented the ergonomists' recommendations, 53 of the workers became symptom-free. In the 24 cases where companies had taken no action, 23 of the injured workers still had problems.

Of course, changing human nature is a challenge. Shelley Donow, owner of Donow & Associates, a New York company that puts together marketing focus groups, bought $300 headsets for each of her four employees so they wouldn't have to crunch a receiver between their ear and shoulder for eight hours a day. "I'm the only one who will wear one," she reports. "They say it messes up their hair."

How can you improve your office's ergonomic health without going broke? First, don't assume you have to spend a fortune. Pricey consultants and expensive equipment are often a waste of resources. Self-education goes a long way to help you sort through the staggering array of ergonomics products out there, and there are plenty of free resources available. One caution: Don't hire a consultant who receives a commission for any equipment they sell you.

When cash-strapped Fanlight Productions, a five-employee film-production company in Boston, found some workers were having wrist and back complaints at their ancient chairs and desks, it hired ergonomist Roberta Carson for $800. She recommended some cost-free improvements, such as raising the height of PC monitors with phone books to eliminate neck strain and rearranging storage shelves to limit bending. When they were ready to spring for new chairs the following year, Carson helped them find affordable ones. "We didn't go whole hog and buy special ergonomically designed chairs," says Karen McMillen, Fanlight's distribution director. "Because Carson had given us such good specifications, we were able to find something in the $200 range that is much better than the chairs we had and much more adjustable." Fanlight's total expenditure: about $2,000.

To keep within your budget, look closely at what your individual employees need and at your existing equipment. "One person may need a footrest, one person may need a document holder that's height-adjustable, one person may need their monitor adjusted to an appropriate height for them," says Carolyn Lundberg, president of Ace Ergonomics in Newport Beach, Calif.

Lundberg helped set up an ergonomics program for Claim Net Inc., a 23-employee Irvine company that places temporary insurance workers (table, page F.38). Claim Net's employees haven't reported any injuries to date, but CEO Jeannie Graves, a former adjuster and manager of workers' comp claims, didn't want to take chances. While she says it's ultimately up to the worker to change some habits, "the employer has the responsibility to do whatever they can." Whenever possible, try to involve employees in the research and planning process. "You'd be surprised at how often they can come up with simple solutions to what seem like big problems," says Nicholas Warren, an ergonomist at the University of Connecticut's Ergonomic Technology Center. After an employee safety committee made ergonomic changes in the office and factory of Cooper Instrument Corp., a Middlefield (Conn.) maker of food-service thermometers, the number of claims dropped from a peak of seven in 1997 to none so far this year--with a corresponding decrease in workers' comp rates, says Gary Sawicki, Cooper's director of technical services.

At Momentum, there have been no new injury claims since the company made ergonomic improvements. In part, that's because a planned move to larger, new offices allowed them to take ergonomics into account when buying the new workstations. But, alarmed by the injuries, Momentum didn't wait. It invested $10,000 before the move in keyboard trays and other adaptive equipment.

Accounting clerk Curd, who, at her worst, dropped dishes and couldn't grip pencils, now serves on Momentum's ergonomics committee. "I'd never heard of ergonomics," says Curd, who still has tendonitis in her shoulder. "If I had known how I was injuring myself, I wouldn't have allowed it, and the company wouldn't have allowed it."

The committee evaluates high-risk employees, such as customer-service reps, at their workstations quarterly, giving grades so they can see where they need improvement. Other employees go through the process annually. Recently, CFO DeHaven received a negative grade for not using her headset. She promptly got with the program. "If we were a manufacturing facility, and we had a rule that said you have to wear safety glasses, and someone wasn't wearing them, you wouldn't put up with it," she says. "People aren't used to that in an office environment. They think, `I work in an office; I can't get hurt."'

Of course, too many people have learned the hard way that they can get hurt. A company culture that promotes ergonomic practices is a powerful dose of preventive medicine.

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