Oh, My Aching Back -- and Wrist, Shoulder, Elbow

November 22, 1994|By MICHAEL K. BURNS

Repetitive-motion injuries in the workplace are costing this country more than $120 billion a year in lost work time and medical or rehabilitative treatment. These musculoskeletal ailments account for 60 percent of newly reported occupational illness, nearly 400,000 cases a year.

Carpal-tunnel syndrome, tennis elbow, tendinitis, shoulder and rTC back problems are ever more common examples of this rapidly growing category of worker disability. Inflamed nerves or deadened nerves from these rapid repeated motions over time can result in a secretary unable to type a single keystroke without sharp pain, a poultry processor unable even to grip a knife.

Once confined to assembly-line, construction and meat-packing jobs, the occurrences of repetitive motion, or repetitive strain, injuries have ballooned with the proliferation of computers in the office workplace over the past decade.

Only now is the federal government getting around to proposing worker-safety regulations to stem this increasingly costly, devastating type of disability.

While the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has cited and fined a number of companies for recurring repetitive-motion injuries, there is still no legal standard for ergonomic safety and health in the workplace. (Ergonomics is the science of adapting work, working conditions and job equipment to human characteristics.)

Nor is there any generally accepted standard for ergonomic equipment, although several European countries have adopted such standards. That has complicated the employers' dilemma in addressing these known workplace ailments: They may lack the expertise to make proper decisions on buying ergonomically designed equipment to solve specific problems.

But experts have long known what kinds of remedies are available beyond individually adjustable equipment and furniture: short work breaks and exercises, mixes of tasks, a less-stressful work pace, minimizing tool vibration and eliminating awkward working positions.

These are the areas addressed by the new OSHA guidelines that require employers to examine all jobs for risk factors and to take prompt corrective action for identified problem jobs.

Each job may have its own ergonomic problem to be fixed; the size or shape of the individual worker also affects what needs to be done to reduce repetitive body stress at a particular job. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, much to the dismay of employers bent on standardization of the workplace.

And that has led to an expected battle between companies and OSHA over final adoption and implementation of the proposed rules. While companies are losing $100 billion in lost work time and $20 billion or more from treating repetitive-motion injuries each year, they have been quick to dig in their heels at the prospect of more government paperwork and greater expense for an uncertain result.

The OSHA rules would force employers to review their employee records to see if these kinds of disorders have occurred in the last two years, to evaluate the problem jobs and make corrections, and to conduct similar annual reviews in the future. Medical management programs would be required, with employee access to prompt treatment for such injuries, workers would have to be trained to avoid these occupational hazards.

Because of OSHA and labor-union pressures, many large corporations already have even stricter ergonomic programs in place. They include the Big Three U.S. automakers, telephone companies, food processing firms and the big meat and poultry concerns.

Increasing numbers of workers afflicted with repetitive-motion injuries are losing their jobs because surgery or rehabilitation are not successful enough to allow them to resume their tasks. In many cases, the employer does not have light-duty alternative jobs in which to place these employees.

Office workers have become more aggressive in going to court as a result of their injuries, suing employers and manufacturers of equipment and furniture for poor ergonomic workplace designs.

The responses of employers have varied considerably. Some have ignored the problem or fought worker-compensation claims for such injuries.

Some, like the Marada Industries auto-parts plant in Westminster, have tried pre-work warm-up exercises as part of a program to avoid assembly-line injuries. Many employers have made surveys of their office equipment and lighting with an eye to improve working postures of clerical employees. Some give employee-training classes.

The General Motors plant in Baltimore went on strike three years ago because of increased repetitive-motion injuries, which the labor union tied to an accelerated assembly-line work pace. It's not just a question of adapting equipment and posture, experts say, but also of providing relief for the body from unceasing repetitive-motion work.

The sweeping OSHA proposal, which could affect 125 million workers, will likely take two years or more to go into effect, and even then with changes. The agency began the process five years ago.

But smart employers will take the cue today and rethink how workplaces and jobs could be changed to minimize this increasing risk for their workers and their own productivity. Business needs to come up with answers soon to this $120 billion question.

Michael K. Burns writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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