Addressing early signs of ergonomic injuries

Date Posted: 07/03/2023
Ergonomic Wrist Injury - Woman at desk in front of computer rubbing her wrist

When injury prevention fails and a condition develops, early intervention becomes critical. If an employee shows signs or symptoms of an ergonomic disorder, your goals should include helping the employee recover and preventing a more serious condition from developing.

Many ergonomic conditions develop over time. If an employee seeks medical treatment, the employer probably missed several opportunities for earlier intervention. That may mean the condition is now more serious, and could have been prevented or mitigated.

Early intervention

Every situation is unique as to job duties, body part affect, and feasible corrective actions, so there is no single step-by-step process for addressing early symptoms. Fortunately, most employers already have processes in place that could be adapted and applied. These may include:

  1. Performing ergonomic evaluations of workstations and job duties to identify and mitigate risk factors.
  2. Identifying modifications when an injured employee gets released to work with restrictions, and applying them to those with early symptoms.
  3. Investigating injuries or reported symptoms to identify root causes and prevent future incidents.

For an employee experiencing early symptoms, an ergonomic evaluation might be more thorough. However, the necessary modifications may be less significant than those given to an employee with a more serious condition.

Normally, if a company imposes restrictions in response to an injury, a restricted work case must be recorded on the OSHA 300 Log. However, in a letter dated May 21, 2010, OSHA noted that:

  • If an employee experiences minor musculoskeletal discomfort, but
  • A health care professional determines the employee is able to perform all routine job functions, then
  • The employer may assign restrictions to prevent a more serious condition from developing without creating a recordable case.

While this requires a medical opinion, it may apply if an employee experiences discomfort, goes to doctor, gets released with no restrictions, but is told to return for a follow-up. At the follow-up, if there’s no improvement, the doctor may recommend restrictions. Potentially, that could be avoided by applying preventative restrictions that aid recovery.

Consider exercises

Another intervention option is using stretching or exercises to alleviate symptoms. While physical therapy and similar exercises are “medical treatment,” OSHA has a loophole for wellness exercises. Many employers recommend stretching for computer users, and could make similar recommendations for other employees. In a letter dated September 9, 2016, OSHA noted:

Exercises that are generally part of safe work practices commonly recommended for anyone engaged in certain tasks or working with certain equipment are not considered medical treatment.

For example, an employer could recommend stretches or simple exercises for all workers who perform certain tasks. If an employee experiences discomfort from performing job duties, a recommendation to perform those exercises is not medical treatment and does not make a case recordable.

Encourage early reporting

Of course, you cannot intervene on a developing condition unless you know about it. Encourage employees to immediately report signs and symptoms. Let them know that ergonomic conditions won’t get better on their own, and often get worse. The employee could end up dealing with pain or limitations for months or even years.

In addition, if coworkers or supervisors notice signs of discomfort (massaging the lower back, stretching the shoulders, or similar attempts to alleviate pain) they should encourage the employee to report the issue.

While a focus on injury prevention is certainly important, employers should also plan for early intervention of a developing condition. That intervention could mean the difference between a few weeks of “taking it easy” and a few months (or years) of chronic pain.

How Safety Management Suite Can Help

Despite your best prevention efforts, some employees will develop conditions that must be recorded on the OSHA 300 Log. Chronic conditions may require updating the original entry with restrictions or days away. The Incident Center in the J. J. Keller® SAFETY MANAGEMENT SUITE helps you track recordable cases and update them throughout the five-year retention period.

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