Simple proactive measures can reduce muscular injuries, work comp claims and lost productivity
Story by Jeffrey Decker
No one likes to get hurt. The cost of getting injured on the job hits both the company and the worker, and the value of prevention has led to growing demand for the on-site advice from physical therapists.
Significant savings add up from fewer doctor visits and fewer missed work days. Last year JBS USA in Green Bay joined the growing ranks of employers to enhance prevention programs with on-site physical therapy from Green Bay-based Bellin Health.
“In direct costs they are on target to save us $80,000 this year,” said Brad Bothun, health and safety manager. “They have also helped lower indirect costs by keeping employees in the plant, they are away from work for a much shorter time, and they are happier because they are getting results,” he added.
Processing beef at JBS is strenuous for the upper body, as is working at paper producer and converter Georgia-Pacific in Green Bay. Safety Manager Chris Gobin said of every 100 people seen by Bellin therapists on-site, 91 are resolved without needing outside care. Those savings have added up substantially in recent years.
Adam Artel is the Bellin therapist contracted by both employers, helping tweak just how workers can do their jobs more safely.
“Whether it’s sitting or assembly or painting, they’re using the same muscles, but they’re also causing the same inflexibilities,” Artel said. “Doing stretching and different exercises helps get people out of those patterns and create better flexibility and strength to prevent an injury from occurring.”
Artel frequently gives “lunch-n-learn” presentations about proper muscle movements, along with functional movement screenings based on nationally-standardized criteria. Thirty years ago prevention plans were rare.
“Fifteen years ago the whole concept of it was really basic,” he recalls, “It was way more reactive. So the shift is becoming more proactive. It’s even starting to change a bit further, to how we can improve overall health, and not just how can we prevent injuries. A company is going to save many more dollars if they have someone who exercises regularly and doesn’t have pain, but also if they have low cholesterol and eat right.”
Savings through prevention
Having a healthier workforce today can generally lead to fewer insurance claims in the future.
In 2005 Miller Electric Mfg. Co. in Appleton partnered with ThedaCare to establish a small on-site clinic with a physician, health coach and a registered nurse. The return on that investment has been on average $4.50 for every dollar Miller spends on those services, according to Michele Skoglund, ThedaCare’s registered nurse who works exclusively with Miller.
“It’s a pretty powerful number, but it’s certainly not the only number they look at,” Skoglund explained. “Are we caring and compassionate? That’s just as important.”
Getting the flu can send an employee home for seven to ten days.
“I do 800 flu vaccines every year,” she said. That’s a substantial portion of the Miller workforce that won’t get the flu, and all for a total cost of $12,000.
In August 2012 the small clinic at Miller added a physician trained in sports medicine and physical therapy. He’s only there for four hours every week, but has helped drive a dramatic reduction in injuries that result in worker’s compensation claims.
Half of Skoglund’s job is talking about prevention, beginning with each employee’s first day on the job and covering everything from cholesterol to stretching. A basic principle she emphasizes is using leg muscles for lifting while keeping the back straight.
“It’s teaching them to lift even a small box or a printed circuit board and keeping it close to the body so you’re not outstretching your arms, and not doing repetitive lifting overhead,” she said.
Those who sit at a desk all day should get up and move at least every hour, Skoglund recommended. Proper posture matters a lot, as does proper chair height and computer placement.
“If you’re constantly straining the muscles in your neck or keeping your wrist in a hyper-flexed position, that’s putting you at risk for carpal tunnel and shoulder and neck-type issues,” Skoglund explained.
Simple changes in the office
Positioning the computer monitor too high or too low on one’s desktop affects a worker’s posture, said Molly Bouressa, physical therapist with Peak Performance Physical Therapy & Sports Medicine in Appleton.
“We see a lot of neck injuries, muscle strain, just from having the neck in that position eight hours a day,” she said.
Even the simple act of clicking a mouse adds up, and Bouressa often recommends switching between left and right hands, “because it’s always on the same side, they oftentimes have the right shoulder more in an elevated position,” she explained, “or putting a mousepad under the wrist so it’s in a neutral position and not in an extended position.”
No matter what the job calls for, Bouressa said the human body needs to be stretched a little further.
“Any time you have a lack of range of motion or a tightness of the shoulder musculature, that predisposes you to developing shoulder impingement and pain, so even if you don’t have pain yet, you’re at higher risk than someone who doesn’t have the same flexibility limitations.”
Bouressa noted how workers who take extra effort to stretch are surprised by their new range of motion.
“They recognize now, how, ‘It used to be a struggle to reach behind my back and tuck in my shirt or put on my jacket, and now all of a sudden those things are easy,’” she pointed out.
Most of the workers Bellin reaches out to are receptive, Artel said.
“More people are starting to ask for recommendations on problems before they get really bad,” he said, “where in the past they might have waited until it got really bad.” Only a very small group are not receptive to prevention, and that group is shrinking. “Certain people are never going to stretch because they’ve never done it before and they’ve never had a problem and they don’t see a reason why.”
Sadly, the convincing argument can sometimes be an injury.
“The average muscular skeletal injury costs somewhere between $12,000 and $20,000,” Artel said.
The bigger wellness picture
Sadoff & Rudoy Industries has come a long way in the ten years since its human resources department launched a grassroots health and prevention program, said Bradford Lasky, senior vice president for operations. In 2011 the Fond du Lac-based scrap metal processor received a Well Workplace Award from the Wellness Council of America.
“We have an aging workforce so there are a lot of things we were seeing and wanted to get in front of. Weight being a big one. Smoking being a big one,” said Lasky. “Employee wellness has become part of the overall business strategy,” and the message is echoed across its six locations in Wisconsin and two in Nebraska.
The percent of employees who feel strongly about the wellness program has increased from below 70 percent in 2009 to above 95 percent as of 2011, Lasky said.
“The awareness is there and people are responding to it. It’s just like anything. It takes time to create changed behaviors,” he added. Basic flexibility is promoted with major incentives. “We require stretching as part of a quarterly bonus program,” he explained. “For the employee to be eligible, they have to have 100 percent stretching participation before their shift and they also have to have no safety violations. And they have to submit a safety suggestion at least once per year.”
The injuries Lasky and his safety team at Sadoff & Rudoy see are often based on the time of year. “We see a lot of slips, trips and falls in the wintertime. Definitely back strains, wrist strains, things of that nature,” he said.
“(These programs promote being) healthy and safe. They go hand-in-hand,” Lasky added. “It’s trying to get employees to be aware of their well-being, which will, in turn, make them feel better, work better, and ultimately should lower our health insurance costs.”
Jeffrey Decker is a business journalist and father based in Oshkosh.