Reducing Occupational Injuries

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Incorporating a sports medicine approach to industry

Like the athletes who practice and perform at high levels on a regular basis, the “industrial athlete” has similar characteristics.

Both are highly skilled. They work at their craft and become experts at the duties they perform. They expose their bodies to stresses that are unique to the task at hand. And they both accomplish goals that without preparation would be difficult if not impossible for someone unaccustomed to the task.

Most often, the biggest difference between these two groups is the “traditional” athlete does a lot more running than the “industrial” athlete. But “traditional” athletes perform their activity for 3-4 hours per day, while the “industrial” athletes do theirs for 8, 9, 10 or more hours per day, at least five days per week if not more.

Cumulative stresses on the body of the industrial athlete are very similar to those experienced by the traditional athlete and lead to similar injuries. Industrial athletes include manufacturing and construction workers, firefighters and those in public safety, warehouse and delivery workers, and those who work in physically demanding occupations.

We commonly see sprain, strain and inflammation injuries from awkward positions, repetitive use, maximal exertion and cases in which job processes or different duties can cause injuries because the body is simply not physically ready to perform the task.

Enter the Athletic Trainer

The prevention of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) is one of the many skill-sets of the athletic trainer. Whether through preventive taping and strapping, biomechanical assessment and corrective programs to address movement dysfunction, or when working with coaches and healthcare professionals, athletic trainers direct care and are uniquely skilled at getting the right person, be it athlete or worker, to the right resource. Athletic trainers are recognized as experts in case management. They expedite care.

Often, safety programs address injuries after they have happened, and then attempt to incorporate prevention strategies to keep further injuries from occurring. Introducing an athletic trainer, who is focused on injury prevention, helps move these programs upstream, addressing injury drivers early and developing strategies that are effective in reducing injuries — particularly strains, sprains and inflammation injuries that often happen to industrial athletes.

Sports Medicine Model in Industry

Physicians, athletic trainers and other healthcare professionals bring a sports medicine approach to the workplace. They understand the body and how it moves, the stresses placed on it and how it can wear out and break.

Much like working with a football or basketball team, athletic trainers in particular are on the front lines and focused on prevention. They specialize in keeping their players on the field and court. In manufacturing, industrial and occupational settings, they can do the same thing by applying the same principles.

For example, workers who may perform repetitive lifting or bending and twisting expose themselves to low-back injuries. Analyzing how they perform their job, educating them on proper movement techniques and working closely with them to prepare their bodies to perform this work can effectively halt low-back injuries.

Those with significant injuries often continue work until they can go no further. By intervening and getting the individual to a resource that can help, athletic trainers can help get the employee back to work earlier and save money associated with time loss and medical costs.

The Cost to Employers

The Travelers Companies 2014 Injury Impact Report shows that strains and sprains averaged $17,000 per claim. Inflammation averaged a cost of $24,500 for each claim.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs) accounted for 388,060 cases in 2012 alone, making up 34 percent of all workplace illness and injuries. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that WMSDs have higher costs than other workplace injuries resulting in problems that include lost productivity and absenteeism, which add to the cost of the injury alone.

Direct costs that include workers’ compensation payments and medical expenses associated with WMSDs nationwide are between $45 and $54 billion. Indirect costs are often significantly greater than direct costs. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the ratio of direct-to-indirect costs varies from 1:1 to as high as 20:1 and depends on many factors.

Indirect costs include lost productivity, employee training, damaged product, re-work and repair, low employee morale leading to absenteeism and presenteeism, and negative company public relations. Every sector of American commerce is exposed to the risk of WMSDs with some of the highest numbers of claims in the construction, manufacturing and assembly, transportation and healthcare industries.

Return on Investment

The American Society of Safety Engineers states that for every dollar spent on ergonomic-related safety programs, employers realize up to $3 to $5 in savings. The Executive Summary: Certified Athletic Trainers Deliver ROI in Occupational Work Settings states a return on investment of up to $10 saved for every dollar spent where the athletic trainer is the principal staff member focused on injury prevention.

These are significant savings realized by utilizing athletic trainers in injury prevention programs and can be applied to practically any industry and occupation.

According to OSHA, an injury prevention program is a proactive process to help employers find and fix workplace hazards before workers are hurt and are effective at reducing injuries, illnesses and fatalities. Many workplaces have already adopted such approaches. Not only do these employers experience dramatic decreases in workplace injuries, but they often report a transformed workplace culture that can lead to higher productivity and quality, reduced turnover, reduced costs and greater employee satisfaction.

Based on the positive experience of employers with existing programs, OSHA believes that injury and illness prevention programs provide the foundation for breakthrough changes in the way employers identify and control hazards, leading to a significantly improved workplace health and safety environment.

Adoption of an injury and illness prevention program will result in workers suffering fewer injuries, illnesses and fatalities. In addition, employers will improve their compliance with existing regulations, and will experience many of the financial benefits of a safer and healthier workplace cited in published studies and reports by individual companies, including significant reductions in workers’ compensation premiums.

This article was produced in cooperation with the National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA), the professional membership association for athletic trainers and those who support the athletic training profession. Visit www.nata.org  

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About Author

Marty Matney, MBA, LAT, ATC

Marty Matney is program manager at Work-Fit and chair of the National Athletic Trainers' Association Committee on Practice Advancement.

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