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How to Handle Overexertion in the Workplace (updated 2021)

Multiple forms of excessive effort that can lead to overexertion injuries mobile view

Safety managers tend to spend a majority of their time making sure their organizations are in compliance with OSHA standards. While this provides a good foundation for preventing injuries, it does not address one of the most common causes of workplace injuries: overexertion.

According to a study from the National Safety Council, overexertion is the third leading cause of injury in the United States. It costs employers $13.4 billion a year, making it one of the top three most costly and disabling work-related injuries in the United States. In addition, overexertion causes fatigue, which results in less productive employees, increased quality errors and more accidents.

Five Ways To Control Overexertion Injuries

Organizations can no longer have an, “If you want to work here, you better bring a strong back” attitude. Statistics show that overexertion injuries can happen to any worker, at any age and in any work situation. EMC policyholders are employing the following measures to successfully reduce the incidence and severity of overexertion injuries:

  1. Optimize storage practices

    In many cases, overexertion injuries can be prevented by storing heavier, manually-lifted parts in the lifting “power zone” between the knees and the shoulders. A great first step for many organizations is to simply raise the storage height of heavier parts to waist level, where equipment can be slid directly onto a cart and pushed to the desired location.
  2. Use material-handling aids

    Instead of repairing an injured employee’s back at an average cost of more than $30,000, spend that money on tools and equipment designed to minimize or eliminate manual handling, such as hoists, lift tables, conveyors, carts and dollies. You’ll wear out dozens of employees’ backs before you wear out a single, well-maintained hoist.
  3. Design for the neutral position

    The body’s neutral posture places the least amount of stress on joints and muscles, allowing them to work more efficiently. The further away from the neutral posture that a person performs a physical task, the higher the risk of an overexertion injury. Reduce this risk by designing jobs and the workplace so that employees are only required to slightly bend or twist to complete their job.
  4. Enhance employee training

    Instead of focusing on safe lifting techniques, train your employees to think before every lift by asking, “What would have to change so I didn’t have to lift and carry this at all?” Then, they can submit their ideas.
  5. Use accident investigation as a learning tool

    Rather than telling employees to be more careful the next time they lift heavy objects, take time to investigate the root cause of each injury. Finding a permanent corrective action is much more effective than simply telling employees to be careful.

Controlling overexertion injuries goes beyond focusing on compliance alone and should be incorporated into all components of your injury management program, including prework screenings, your select provider network, return to work programs and promoting employee health and wellness. Remember, controlling overexertion injuries will help you control claim costs, improve productivity and provide a safer work environment for your employees.

Frequently Asked Questions about Overexertion Injuries in the Workplace

Here are some frequently asked questions and answers about overexertion injuries. These should help you handle your overexertion injuries.

Q: Overexertion injuries aren’t a big deal, right? Maybe our company doesn’t need to be overly concerned about overexertion.
A: Overexertion injuries are a very big deal! According to the National Safety Council, overexertion injuries are the No. 1 reason employees miss work, and they account for more than one of every three work-related injuries. In 2019, workers’ compensation claims costs totaled more than $15 billion for overexertion injuries.

Q: Our company can’t eliminate or substitute for a particular overexertion hazard. How do we figure out which engineering controls will protect our employees?
A: Engineering controls isolate workers from the hazard and can be very effective in preventing overexertion injuries. Your best option is to work with a reliable company that can provide solid resources to help you understand your needs and assist you in choosing the best equipment and tools for your workplace.

Companies like Southworth Products, Ergoweb and Humantech provide educational resources, such as videos, photos, webinars, seminars, e-books, and guides, on their websites. And of course, your EMC Loss Control Representative can offer suggestions and education on additional options that may help you.

Q: Elimination, substitution and engineering controls can be very expensive options. Would it be more cost effective to boost our administrative controls instead?
A: No, because administrative controls do not take the “human factor” out of your potential risk. These controls are policies and procedures designed to reduce your employees’ exposure to hazards by changing the way they work instead of removing or reducing the hazards.

Examples of administrative controls include safety training, using team lifts for heavy parts, requiring breaks and providing fluids for rehydration. Unfortunately, these controls are easily forgotten when employees are rushed, upset, tired or distracted.

When these controls are overlooked by employees, costly injuries can be the result. Simply put, when it comes to protecting your employees and bottom line, you’re better off investing in elimination, substitution or engineering controls.

Q: Why should we be worried if a few employees don’t follow overexertion prevention procedures? After all, our workers’ compensation insurance pays their medical bills.
A: Yes, your insurance will cover an employee’s medical bills, but there are indirect costs that workers’ compensation insurance does not cover. You may need to hire temps to cover the injured employee’s position, pay overtime for current employees or hire and train a new employee if the injured person can’t return to the job. Plus, you can incur expenses from incident investigations, corrective actions, lost productivity and more.

Indirect costs are often higher than medical bills, so your company could incur a substantial financial burden from each and every injury. Although indirect costs can be difficult to calculate, a 4:1 ratio of indirect to direct costs is commonly used to estimate expenses. Additionally, OSHA’s cost calculator provides a quick estimate of both direct and indirect costs of various common workplace injuries.

Another variable to keep in mind is your workers’ compensation insurance experience modification factor, a multiplier to the insurance premium you pay. Every workers’ compensation claim will affect your insurance premiums for years to come.

Q: Can you give some examples of solutions that have helped other companies prevent overexertion injuries through the use of the hierarchy of hazard control?
A: Of course! One EMC policyholder was experiencing a high frequency of back injuries in their warehouse. First, they attempted to lower injuries through an administrative control by training employees on proper lifting techniques. But this did not decrease injuries.

Next, they tried PPE in the form of back belts, which also failed to reduce injuries. Finally, the company implemented an engineering control by changing the rack system design. This change lead to an impressive drop in the number of back injuries.

For another example, read this NIOSH article that features a vacuum lifting system that reduced hand force for lifting by 90% and reduced compressive force in the lower back by 63%. Additionally, OSHA highlights many ergonomics-related success stories on their website.

Count on EMC® to help control overexertion injuries with these helpful resources:

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