June 19, 2000
Computer-Related Injuries: IT Helps Ease The Pain
Tech experience is key to stemming rising number of injuries and medical costs
By Judith N. Mottl
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"It got pretty scary. Bending my arm triggered such pain that I intentionally began trying to keep it straight as much as possible," recounts Redman. Not only was the pain hurting Redman's job performance-which involved a heavy mix of phone, keyboard, and mouse use-but it forced the 11-year employee to forgo her favorite sport, golf.
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Redman is among 1.8 million workers hit by a musculoskeletal disorder each year. The federal agency recently concluded public hearings on a proposed rule that would mandate that nearly every U.S. company implement a formal ergonomics program focused on musculoskeletal disorders in the workplace (see story).
Ergonomic injuries are attracting more attention for two reasons: they're becoming more numerous, and the costs-in workers compensation, medical bills, and lost productivity-are rising Computer use is one of the reasons for the increase in repetitive stress injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome. Many consultants and researchers of ergonomic injuries hope the latest OSHA push will get high-level IT staff involved in ergonomic decisions because, when it comes to ergonomic programs and planning, IT involvement is the exception.
"IT has been missing in the debate all along, yet IT managers and their departments are a very important part of the equation," says Bob Bettendorf, president of the Institute for Office Ergonomics, an ergonomic consultancy. "Not only are they the ones buying the equipment, they're likely setting up the initial office workplace. As employees, it impacts them as well."
Bettendorf helps companies establish in-house ergonomic task forces, and the first question he poses is, "Where is the IT guy? The company says, 'Oh, yeah, OK.' The IT unit ends up sending a lower-level staffer who then attends half the meetings," he says.
While lower back pain remains the most prevalent and costly work-related musculoskeletal disorder facing businesses in the United States and other Western industrialized countries, other complaints such as neck, shoulder, and hand injuries are spiking as well, according to insurance industry reports. Companies today aren't bound by any federal regulation to implement an ergonomic workplace program, yet nearly 50% have done so voluntarily, according to industry reports.
"It's usually something a company starts paying attention to when the accountant walks into a senior manager's office and says, 'You've got do something about the worker comp costs and increased medical costs,' " says Mary Adams, an occupational therapist with Midwest Ergonomic Consultants LLC. "A major reason why companies shy away from implementing ergonomic programs is that many are under the wrong impression that it means spending big bucks."
That isn't the situation at SAS. The company's two-person ergonomic lab, established in 1996, has no set budget, and responds to problems as they arise. "The goal is to provide the best fit in terms of product, equipment, and workplace setup," says Kathleen Kitts, SAS's ergonomic coordinator. "We want employees to have the most relaxed and comfortable setting, which not only prevents injuries but spurs healing."
The lab houses ergonomic office equipment used to create a more comfortable working environment-keyboards, computer mice, footrests, adjustable chairs, and full workstation setups help determine an employee's office needs. The staff conducted more than 545 employee ergonomic assessments last year.
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