For Workers, Ergonomic Tips

Corrections or additions?

This article by Michele Alperin was prepared for the March 7, 2001

edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

On the Job Injuries: Strategies For Supervisors and Workers

Many employers fail to grasp the longer-term effects

of absenteeism on business results, says Terry Smith, principal of

the Carnegie Center-based William M. Mercer (609-520-3733 or E-mail: At a time when supervisors are

expected to boost productivity and cut staff, they no longer have

the luxury of maintaining "extra" staff to cover for


In February Smith’s firm released a survey showing that large


lose almost 15 percent of annual payroll from employee absenteeism,

and this costs them almost $150 billion annually.

Some of the factors contributing to employee absence include personal

needs, sick family members, unsafe work environments, and poor morale.

But a surprisingly high percentage of these absences is due to


Skeletal Disorders (MSDs), says Smith, citing a two-year-old Bureau

of Labor Statistics study. The MSDs (frequently attributed to carpal

tunnel syndrome) accounted for more than one out of three of the


and illnesses involving recuperation away from work.

Smith points out that conservative medical treatment of carpal tunnel

syndrome can represent a serious business expense, in terms of both

direct and indirect costs. A typical course of treatment includes

having the patient stop the repetitive motion for a period of time;

prescribing drugs to alleviate pain and reduce swelling; prescribing

wrist splints; and doing a nerve conduction study for diagnosis of

carpal tunnel.

Only after all these are completed and carpal tunnel is confirmed

will a physician prescribe surgery to release the inflamed nerves

in the muscle sheath. "From the employer perspective," says

Smith, "the treatment can take four to five months. During this

period, the proposed regulations require employers to pay 90 and 100

percent of salary while the person is out of work or on lighter


The impact of such absences is measured in terms of sick and vacation

pay, disability costs, temporary staffing, and in many other ways.

"It costs twice as much to hire overtime or temporary employees

than it does to retain full-time staff," says Smith.

To prevent injuries, Smith urges supervisors to review workplace


— it’s the best way to reduce both the direct and hidden costs

of MSDs. Look at job descriptions and physical work site conditions

to attempt to identify and eliminate processes or conditions that

lead to MSDs.

Supervisors should insist that injured employees have

access to quality healthcare even they have to short circuit the


time that may be imposed by managed care providers. "Be in regular

communication with the health care professional to make sure proper

treatment plans are in place. Employers can also work with HCPs for

more aggressive early treatment," says Smith. Although earlier

treatment means greater spending early on, he says, employers will

see increases in productivity and attendance as well as higher morale.

Pointing out that the cost of a worker’s unscheduled absence costs

50 percent more than a scheduled absence, Smith recommends that


recognize the time-off needs of their staff. They can set up a program

that provides "work-enabling benefits" that put time-off


in line with business objectives.

Set up a "paid, time-off bank," that encourages

employees to schedule all known absences. This might prevent everyone

signing out on any given day. Each employee has a certain amount of

days off that can be taken per year. When workers know the days are

theirs to take, they no longer have to worry about making up a


"sanctioned" reason for the absence. If too many sign up for

a particular day, the supervisor can ask some to reschedule their

"off" days to ensure proper coverage.

Establish a "return to work program" for ill and

injured employees who have been out on short-term or long-term


A "modified duty" arrangement lets workers come in for a few

hours each day, once they are well enough.

This replaces the usual practice of paying these workers 100 percent

of their salaries until they are completely recovered. Allowing them

to work a two or three-hour day makes up for missed productivity,

and may also be enough to avoid hiring a full-time temp to take up

the slack.

Set up a work-at-home environment for an ill or injured

worker. This may cost some money, but the employee can help keep


on track. Benefits far outweigh costs, says Smith. "There is a

lot to be gained by having absence management and other work-enabling

benefit plans. Employers can realize increased productivity, enhanced

employee satisfaction, improved customer service, and better alignment

of organizational operations. It’s been proven that these plans save

employers’ money."

Employees benefit, too. Properly designed work-enabling benefits help

them better maintain work/life balance, improve health status, and

in the case of well-managed disabilities programs, remove


headaches during an already difficult time.

William M. Mercer Inc. (MMC), 212 Carnegie Center,

Princeton 08543-5323. 609-520-3733; fax, 520-3760. Home page:

The "Employers’ Time-Off and Disability Programs Survey 2000"

costs $200.

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For Workers, Ergonomic Tips

In an office environment, says Ellen Rader Smith,

an ergonomics consultant, companies should be worrying as much about

the ergonomics of the work station as they do about the equipment

itself. To reduce the incidence of carpal tunnel syndrome as well

as neck and back strain, work stations must be arranged thoughtfully,

with appropriate equipment:

The mouse needs to be next to the keyboard. A mouse that

is beyond a comfortable forearm reach can strain the neck and upper


Typing should be done on an articulating keyboard tray

or drawer, which permits adjustment of the tilting angle and is wide

enough to accommodate the mouse.

The monitor and the keyboard should be lined up to prevent

the user from continually rotating the head or neck, and the monitor

should be placed at about a full arm’s reach to avoid eye strain.

Its height should be adjusted so that the top line of print displayed

is within an inch or two of eye level.

The chair needs to have good lumbar and back support that

adjusts easily (including height) and swivels on a five-leg base.

Smith cautions that a company cannot simply buy a chair and


that people will be able to use it properly," but must train them.

Smith recommends not depending entirely on the furniture vendor for


Finally, workers should use a headset when speaking on the


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