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It's highly unlikely that a costly piece of machinery would get absolutely no maintenance for years in your workplace. This is what's happening to employees who are exposed over time to risk factors for musculoskeletal diseases, warns Susan Murphey, BS, CECD, president of Essential WorkWellness in Shoreline, WA.
"I liken it to a preventative maintenance schedule for equipment. It prevents more expensive breakdowns that come down the line," she says.
Soreness and discomfort are underreported, though, because workers fear losing their job or other repercussions, notes Murphey. "Very often, even the worker may not understand why they are hurting," she says.
Musculoskeletal injuries are costly in more ways than one, according to Pam Dannenberg, RN, COHN-S, CAE, ergonomic and occupational health services manager at EK Health Services in San Jose, CA. "They cause good people to have pain and discomfort. They also cost losses in terms of productivity, quality and financially," she says.
If one of EK Health Services' employees is having soreness and discomfort, a professional ergonomic specialist is assigned to see that person, Dannenberg says.
The ergonomist makes equipment and behavior recommendations, which are then implemented, says Dannenberg. "We are preventing symptoms from turning into full-blown musculoskeletal diseases," she says. "Employees are happier and more productive."
There are some big differences between setting up safety programs to prevent acute injuries, versus chronic injuries, says Murphey. "If an employee falls off a ladder at work, it's pretty clear what the mechanism of injury is," she says. "There's likely already a safety policy, but perhaps it just wasn't followed."
In this case, the policy may need to be revised, she says, or workers may need a refresher to improve compliance.
"The return to work for that employee is pretty straightforward," she says. "They are likely not walking back into the same risk factors that caused their injury. With repetitive use injuries, it's a whole different ball game."
It's very difficult for occupational health to carve out the time to set up prevention programs for chronic exposure injuries, explains Murphey. "Their job description is often 'mind-numbing. The occ health role may include handling exposure hazards, acute injuries and flu vaccines, just to name a few," she says.
Finding time to identify risks for chronic work-related injuries is therefore difficult, says Murphey. While acute injuries demand your attention, says Murphey, chronic injuries may go unrecognized.
"It is hard to demonstrate the need to address them. They are often not evident, and go unreported," she says. "It is difficult to allocate resources to prevention. That is a shame, because repetitive use injuries are a huge cost to organizations."