The national annual cost of occupational injuries and illnesses is billions more than the costs of all cancers, diabetes, and strokes*. The estimated cost of nonfatal occupation injuries for 2010 (the most recent available data) was $196 billion. Of that, $53 billion came out of workers’ compensation specifically for musculoskeletal injuries**. These are the injuries that develop over time from repetitively doing the same movement day after day.
Minnesota is one of the 22 states whose occupational injury and illness rates are higher than the national average. Considering the industries reporting the most injuries per 100 workers per year, this is not surprising. Healthcare, manufacturing, transportation and warehousing are consistently amongst the fields who report the most job-related injuries. Basically, these employees manually move people and material. Minnesota is full of these jobs.
Comparing incident rates to years past, there is good news and bad. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, incidents rates have decreased significantly every year since 2002. Education on safety and ergonomics has increased over the years, resulting in changes that lead to fewer injuries. However, manufacturing was the only sector where the latest incident rates actually increased from the year before. This was not because the number of incidents themselves increased, but because the number of hours worked decreased. Some ergonomic plans include reducing hours worked to decrease the employees’ exposure to repetitive or strenuous labor. If this has anything to do with why there were fewer hours worked in the report, then not enough effort has been made to increase safety in other areas. If people are working less but injured just as frequently, there is a problem.
Manufacturing is the third largest industry in the state of Minnesota. The Department of Employment and Economic Development states that an annual salary in manufacturing is 20% higher than the average wage for all industries. Clearly this industry is invaluable to the state’s economy. Yet it is the only sector in which employees are more likely to incur injury, thereby also costing the most in workers’ compensation, days away from work, job restriction, and job transfer.
Solving this problem is up to the employer. Every operation will require its own unique solution based on workstation layout, job tasks, and equipment used to complete the tasks. The most important factors in minimizing musculoskeletal injuries are: reducing or eliminating repetitive movement; adjusting heights of work stations, handles, and storage units; eliminating heavy lifting and carrying; minimizing pushing and pulling; and alternating job tasks.
Fortunately, some of the most successful changes made to lower injury rate have been those where one change has affected a number of people. For example, spending the money to redesign an assembly line may revamp the entire operation to affect employees both on and off the line. Equipment designed to move heavy loads or replace other manual jobs prove useful to more than one area of operation. As technology and safety awareness evolve, the equipment continues to improve, becoming more efficient and effective. Also, the equipment often pays for itself within five years.
Even though ergonomics have been a part of the work force for years, we still have a ways to go. Ergonomic plans should be reviewed and updated on a regular basis. Employers should be updating their research on the latest available equipment to ensure they find the best solutions for their needs. Looking out for the safest, most effective means to complete a job is taking care of both the employee and the business itself. This is what will keep Minnesotan’s proud of our manufacturing industry.
* “Annual Price Tag for Occupational Injuries and Illnesses Reaches $250 Billion,” Bridges Newsletter, The Center for Occupational and Environmental Health, 2012, http://coeh.berkeley.edu/bridges/Spring2012/OccupationalInjuriesIllnesses.html
** “Inputs: Occupational Safety and Health Risks,” NIOSH Program Portfolio, http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/programs/econ/risks.html