AETNA SUGGESTS WAYS TO CONTROL REPETITIVE MOTION INJURIES --
A $20 BILLION PROBLEM
HARTFORD, Conn., Nov. 18 /PRNewswire/ -- When the U.S. Labor Department issues its yearly report on workplace illnesses tomorrow, cumulative trauma disorders, such as carpal tunnel syndrome and tendinitis, are expected to make up more than half the total for the second straight year.
Cumulative trauma disorders (CTDs), or repetitive motion injuries, accounted for nearly 52 percent of workplace illnesses in 1989, up from 18 percent in 1981, reported the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). This trend has prompted the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the insurance industry to help employers focus on ergonomics, the science of adapting the workplace to employees.
"Cumulative trauma injuries may cost the nation's employers as much as $20 billion a year. That's why ergonomics is becoming such an important workplace issue," said William T. Nebraska, who heads Aetna's safety engineering department and co-chairs an OSHA/insurance industry task force that is developing ways to improve safety at smaller businesses.
In tracking injuries of factory and office workers at several large corporations Aetna insures for workers' compensation, the insurer found that 45 percent of the injuries and 63 percent of the total injury claim payments at these companies were from cumulative trauma.
Many experts believe the dramatic increase in computer use has contributed to the rise in carpal tunnel syndrome, a common cumulative trauma disorder that afflicts the nerve tunnel in the wrist. BLS reported that 46 million people used computers at work in 1988, compared to only 675,000 in 1976.
Since last year, OSHA has established ergonomic guidelines for the meatpacking industry, drafted general industry guidelines and reached agreements with several companies for the installation of programs to reduce repetitive motion injuries.
Aetna's 450 safety specialists work with its workers' compensation and property insurance customers, helping them survey their operations and recommending ways to reduce the risk of injuries and improve overall safety.
"We check four main factors when evaluating a job or work area -- force, frequency, posture and the environment. When these factors are controlled the chances of developing cumulative trauma injuries should drop significantly," Nebraska said.
Aetna has added video cameras to the technical equipment its safety specialists use to help customers analyze hazards in the workplace. The cameras help to break down complex arm, wrist, hand and finger motions involved in various types of work.
Aetna recently published an ergonomics workbook for employers to help them evaluate their workplaces and solve ergonomic problems related to jobs, equipment and workstation design. The company will produce a similar workbook for the construction industry in 1992.
The recommendations Aetna makes to customers to reduce the likelihood of CTDs range from using ergonomically designed tools, equipment and furniture to rotating employees between jobs. Solutions are often simple and inexpensive. For example, at one New York manufacturer, workers who assembled electrical outlets and light switches complained of shoulder, wrist and low-back pain. Aetna suggested the company change the heights of chairs and assembly tables, redesign parts containers and move them closer to workers. Although costs of the changes were minimal, injuries were reduced substantially, and productivity and product quality increased.
"To control these injuries, employers should listen to their workers," Nebraska said. "If workers complain of symptoms of cumulative trauma, supervisors should address the force, frequency, posture and environment factors in their work. There's a good chance that an injury can be prevented from happening or recurring," he said.
By reducing the number of injuries and lost work time, employers can control some of the factors that influence their workers' compensation insurance costs. While rates reflect the hazards involved in a company's work and claim payouts for work injuries in each state, rates can be adjusted by a company's injury claims and its commitment to safety programs.
Aetna is among the nation's largest providers of workers' compensation insurance, with $1.7 billion of written premiums (sales) in 1990.
How to control cumulative trauma injuries
Aetna suggests the following general tips to control cumulative trauma injuries:
Avoid awkward movements. Flexing the wrists puts pressure on the nerves and tendons. Limit excessive bending and twisting, or working above shoulder level.
Give workers a break. Muscles need rest. Regular, short breaks are best.
Rotate tasks. Workers taking turns typing and filing, or assembling products and stocking inventory use and rest different muscles.
Use adjustable furniture. Work surfaces and chairs should accommodate workers of all sizes on different work shifts.
Promote good posture. Workers who sit may need adjustable chairs so feet rest flat on the floor, wrists are neutral, forearms and thighs are parallel to the floor. Workers who stand may need a footrest to alternate feet and relieve back stress.
Reconsider production incentives. These may increase force and frequency, which can lead to injury and lost production over time.
/EDITORS' NOTE: Tips for controlling injuries are listed in release./
/CONTACT: Stephen Wasdick of Aetna, 203-273-3706, or home, 203-665-0708/ CO: Aetna ST: Connecticut IN: INS SU: PS -- NY004 -- 1302 11/18/91 10:00 EST