Sarasota, FL (WorkersCompensation.com) – Ergonomic injuries among workers are expected to increase by 16 percent in the next year, according to a recent report from MarshMcLennan. Many employers are already seeing 13 percent more musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) than they did before the pandemic.
The aging workforce, increased numbers of employees working remotely and the many stressors from the pandemic are likely exacerbating the problem, says one expert. Employers trying to prevent these injuries are advised to have their safety and mental health/wellness leaders collaborate and actively engage all their employees.
Recent data cited by Marsh points to higher costs associated with increased aches and pains during the pandemic. “ …between January and September 2020, costs associated with MSDs have surpassed the annual cost during each of the past three years,” the Marsh report said. “MSD injuries could become a major expense, with each individual ergonomic claim costing U.S. employers an average of $17,000.”
One-third of all workplace injuries are soft tissue, or MSDs. “It’s a $20 billion dollar-a-year issue. That’s direct costs,” said Kevin Lombardo, president/CEO of the Dorn Company. “When you start adding in indirect costs that’s another $45 billion to $54 billion.”
The Marsh projection of the increase in MSDs is already coming to fruition. Lombardo said his clients are reporting a 13 percent increase already.
“Pre COVID, we visited a client with 17 locations … we saw 7 or 8 work-related issues … with COVID, they sent people home,” he said. “The first full week we were in all 17 locations again we saw 84 people with work-related issues. Just over the course of that two to three month period of time that risk accelerated and spiked right up.”
One way to prevent MSDs is by getting buy-in from employees themselves. Showing them the actual numbers and how it can impact them can be a great benefit.
“On average, employers will spend $120,000 on each workplace disability – in direct and indirect costs. For companies operating at a 10 percent margin, you’ll need an additional $1.2 million in sales to pay for the injury,” Lombardo said. “If you are able to show them [and say] ‘before we can do raises, before we can do profit sharing, bonuses’ … by communicating to people and putting it in terms that they can understand they start thinking like you think; like your CFO thinks, your CEO. You’ve got to start putting things in those perspectives.”
Such thinking may prompt employees to avoid MSD-inducing activities, such as:
- Prolonged repetitive tasks
- Sustained awkward or static postures
- Using outdated equipment
Employees who work from home represent a much larger share of the workforce during the pandemic – a trend that is likely to continue, at least in some form. Hybrid work, where employees split their time between remote work and being in the office is expected to be dominant going forward, experts have suggested.
It’s a scenario employers should consider as they plan their safety and health efforts going forward. Improper home office setups, for example, are responsible for more than half of workplace injuries that occur among remote workers. According to Chubb insurance, two in five remote workers report feeling new or increase pain in their shoulders, back or wrists since they started working from home during the pandemic.
One of the biggest contributors to injuries, especially among those working remotely is overall stress. Surveys of wellness directors show fatigue and overall stress has increased.
“People working from home average 11 hours a day online now,” Lombardo said. “We’re just spending too much time.”
Getting all employees – especially those working remotely – engaged in initiatives to mitigate MSDs is key to success. Helping them become a part of the overall process can go a long way. Putting them on any committees associated with the effort, for example, can be have a significant impact.
“Have them thinking about programs onsite that can be modified and brought to them,” Lombardo said. “Meet them where they are at.”
There are a number of ways employers can help remote workers deal with aches and pains and prevent MSDs. Virtual self-care massage is one example, along with virtual ergonomic training and assessments, ergonomic software and wearables and virtual mobility and conditioning training.
“There are a lot of ways to go,” Lombardo said. “Make sure remote workers are taking care of themselves.”
Engaging employees, both those remote and onsite works best when safety and wellness/mental health programs are aligned. Directors of these departments at various companies are starting to partner, as mental health issues are often a precursor to ergonomic injuries.
“When 40 million people lost their jobs last year … think about what that does to them; the stress on them, the impact on their mental wellbeing and it turns into a risk for injuries,” Lombardo said. “It’s a significant issue.”
The impact of stress and fatigue should be on the minds of employers trying to reduce ergonomic injuries, Lombardo said. Safety and wellness programs can go hand-in-hand to protect workers.
“Look at your programs in wellness,” Lombardo advised. “Make sure you’re able to open the door to your workers if you’re seeing they are having issues that could potentially be a catastrophic injury and say, ‘Hey, did you know our wellness portal does X, Y and Z.’”
In addition to getting buy-in from employees, senior leadership also needs to be intricately supportive to successfully implement programs to reduce ergonomic injuries. Lombardo related the story of a Silicon Valley worker who sent a mass email to her entire company saying she was taking off the next two days as ‘mental health days.’
“How many of our organizations would not cringe if somebody sent out that type of email to an entire organization, including the CEO,” Lombardo asked. “The CEO responded and replied to all; ‘Maddy, please take care of yourself. You are an integral part of our organization. We need you here Monday morning, fully engaged.’ That is something we need to think about. We need to be attuned to what is going on … You don’t know what people are going through; domestic abuse, impacted by racial strife, where they land on the political spectrum – all these things create risk for you.”