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March 22, 1999

Work-related musculoskeletal injuries: Employer survey, claims study provide more answers

TUMWATER - More than 60,000 workers' compensation claims each year involve work-related musculoskeletal injuries in Washington State, according to an updated study by the Department of Labor & Industries.

And a just-released survey reveals Washington employers' perceptions of these injuries and what needs to be done to solve them.

The cost of work-related musculoskeletal injuries in Washington for the period 1990-97 remains a staggering $2.7 billion. A study completed a year ago found comparable costs for the period 1989-96.

Musculoskeletal claims average 30 per 1,000 full-time workers, according to L&I's data. The survey obtained similar rates from employers' estimates - 34.8 claims per 1,000 full-time workers.

"Musculoskeletal injuries represent a huge toll of pain, suffering and lost productivity that affect both workers and employers," said Gary Moore, L&I director. "Many of these injuries could be prevented if the tools and techniques of ergonomics were used in more of Washington's workplaces."

Musculoskeletal injuries include sprains, strains, inflammation and degeneration primarily involving the back, shoulder and parts of the arm. They can occur suddenly or develop gradually as the result of repetitive or cumulative trauma.

The survey results "add to the body of evidence linking musculoskeletal injures to defined risk factors in the workplace," Moore said.

The survey asked employers about musculoskeletal injuries in their workplaces and the steps they had taken to protect workers. They also were asked to estimate their employees' exposure to risk factors, such as handling heavy loads and working in awkward postures.

"The 75 percent response rate for this survey indicates keen employer interest in this workplace safety issue," said Barbara Silverstein, research director for L&I's Safety and Health Assessment and Research for Prevention (SHARP) program.

Other survey findings:

  • Musculoskeletal injuries occurred in all industry sectors and sizes of firms.
  • Risk factors varied by size and type of industry, but 90 percent of surveyed employers had workers exposed to one or more risk factors.
  • One-third of employers said at least one of their employees suffered a work-related musculoskeletal injury during the past three years. Gradual onset musculoskeletal injuries represented more than half the reported injuries.
  • Sixty-one percent of the firms that reported these injuries took steps to prevent or
    reduce them. The majority of them saw a reduction in the number and severity of musculoskeletal injuries and more than a fourth saw additional benefits such as reduced employee turnover and absenteeism and improved quality and employee morale.

However, two-thirds of all respondents said they had not taken steps to prevent or reduce musculoskeletal injuries. The majority said such injuries were not a problem in their workplace.

"The number of employers addressing this problem is encouraging," Silverstein said. "But we also are concerned that a substantial portion of firms said they had taken no prevention steps when they had reported musculoskeletal injuries or risk factors in their workplaces."

The survey was designed and analyzed by SHARP. Gilmore Research Group of Seattle conducted the interviews in May 1998.

L&I updates claims study

The updated study covered workers' compensation claims for musculoskeletal injuries of the back, shoulder and arm. These can occur suddenly, such as a back injured during a fall, or develop gradually, for example, tendinitis or carpal tunnel syndrome. Key findings include:

  • These injuries continue to represent 36 percent of all workers' compensation claims paid by L&I. For the period 1990-1997, they totaled 483,107 of 1,332,703 claims.
  • These injuries represent 52 percent of all compensable claims (worker misses four or more days of work) paid by L&I and 55 percent of all compensable claims paid by self-insured employers. Self-insurance data had not been included in the earlier study.
  • The claims rate for hand/wrist and back disorders decreased, the rate for shoulder disorders remained the same and the rate for elbow disorders increased.
  • Workers in industries having risks such as heavy manual handling and repetitive work face the greatest likelihood of injury.

Last December, L&I filed an "intent to initiate rule making" with the Washington State Code Reviser. This early step could eventually lead to ergonomics requirements for preventing work-related musculoskeletal injuries. These requirements would complement L&I's existing education, technical assistance and research. In February, L&I began working with an advisory committee to evaluate different regulatory options.

"Ergonomics simply means designing jobs, selecting tools and modifying work methods so that they better fit workers' capabilities and limits," Silverstein said.


L&I's Ergonomics Page

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