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Making Manual Material Handling Safe

June 12, 2015

Countless numbers of companies and work sites have embraced ergonomics beyond what was asked of them. Strategies vary from simple to complex, but has the return been worth the investment? The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has compiled case after case exemplifying companies who have presented a problem, an ergonomic solution, and the success of the solution with some impressive results. This article will focus on companies making changes to address Repetitive Stress/Strain Injury (including Carpal Tunnel Syndrome), Repetitive Motion Injury, and Cumulative Trauma Disorder.

  • Advanced Filtration Systems Inc. in Illinois looked closely at a job that was resulting in many Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS) diagnoses in their employees, 2 of who required surgery. Their filter inspection process required employees to use an extended pinch grip and turn their wrists to manually manipulate and inspect filter items coming off a chain conveyor. Aside from the conveyor, the process was completely manual. By implementing robots and a different conveyor, the process became 95% automated. The results? No Carpal Tunnel Cases had been reported since the change at the time of report. Additionally, the product defect rate decreased and employee morale increased significantly. This change earned the company an award from the Director of OSHA’s Region V office along with publicity and recognition in the written media.
  • Sun Microsystems, Inc. in California experienced a high number of Repetitive Motion Injuries (RMIs) in employees in the early ‘90s. By 1993, the disability claims were around 300. Reeling from the cost of the claims and loss in productivity, the company purchased ergonomic equipment and furniture as well as implemented training and workstation assessments to employees who requested them. As a result, despite major growth in number of employees, between 1993 and 2002, the number of claims dropped from 300 to 50. The total cost that had exceeded $1.5 million in 1992 dropped to less than $100,000 in 2002. Additionally, the average cost to close a disability claim of a work-related musculoskeletal disorder went from over $12,000 in ’92 to $2500 in ’02.
  • Duracell, located in Georgia, recognized that Cumulative Trauma Disorders (CTDs) were a whopping 35% of their recordable injuries over a 4-year period. Setting a goal to reduce CTDs by 50%, the company formed a committee to tackle the problem. After much research of data and cost, the committee implemented improvements including automation, work height adjustments, redesign of workstations, ergonomic furniture, and several other solutions. By using these methods and maintaining a comprehensive ergonomics program, Duracell reduced CTD incidents by 90% and total accident rates by 81%.
  • Siemens VDO Automotive in Michigan found that 43% of their 250 office workers were complaining of CTDs in their back, shoulders, elbows, and fingers. Evaluating each workstation, Siemens provided ergonomic support for chairs and computer workstations, training on ergonomics and back safety, and frequent exercise breaks. Two years after the implementation, not a single CTD-related lost time incident had occurred. They estimated a savings of 20,000 hours per year that had previously been lost to doctor visits, time off, and pain.
  • Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas reported 103 CTD-related claims in 1991 costing over $500,000. The company shifted its entire focus on employee health and made nearly 30 changes. Some of them include: purchasing ergonomic furniture and accessories, ongoing education of employees on ergonomics, installing health stations, designing and building equipment necessary for workstation comfort when such equipment can’t be found, and exercise or stretch programs. By 2002, CTD/RSI claims had fallen from 103 to 52, resulting in cost plummets from $526,000 to $137,000.

The most aggressive and successful programs are ongoing and involve leadership, hazard analysis and control, follow-up, training, and even working with nurses or physical therapists to manage early symptoms of RSIs or CTDs. Workstation analysis and education are consistent in ergonomic improvements. Overall, the results are dramatic and positively affect the number of claims reported, productivity, and employee morale.

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