Sprains and strains Featured

10:02am EDT July 22, 2002

When most people think about job safety, they envision a factory environment with heavy machinery, forklifts and hard hats. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration spends a lot of time investigating accidents in these types of settings, but just because your business doesn't have heavy equipment doesn't mean you shouldn't think about safety.

Minor injuries, such as sprains and muscle strains, can occur almost anywhere. For many employees, these "minor" injuries lead to lost productivity and even missed time at work. If not treated properly, these injuries can have just as much effect on your bottom line as a more serious incident.

The first thing to realize is that injuries are not limited to blue-collar environments. Some of the most common injuries happen in office settings, and with the growing incidence of repetitive-motion injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome, it may be time to take a proactive stance on safety.


Stop the strain.

Hillside Rehabilitation Hospital in Warren, Ohio, is a good example of a setting where injuries wouldn't be expected. But before a safety program was initiated, the accident rate was leading to lost productivity.

"The nursing department was reporting strains, sprains, and lumbar spine injuries," says Linda Hitmar, an RN and the Employee Health Nurse at the hospital. "The dietary department had a lot of burns and lacerations. The sprains and strains were requiring physical therapy, prescriptions and time off."

Most of the patients at the hospital suffer the effects of strokes or have other problems requiring assistance. The nursing staff members were injuring themselves doing things such as trying to move a patient from a bed to a wheelchair because of the patient's lack of mobility.

As a result, a safety steering committee was formed in 1994 to address the injury rate. One of the first actions was the creation of a safety committee that would examine issues and make recommendations to the steering committee. The steering committee focuses on policies, while the safety committee is more of a hands-on team that tackles specific problems within each department.

"We give employees extensive training on ergonomics and body mechanics," says Hitmar. "We have a skills validation day where every employee is involved. One of the topics we cover is safety. We have them come in and go over back-safety training."

Department-specific safety issues are addressed as well.

"We teach employees to respect and appreciate the safety culture," says Joan Nypaver, the risk manager at the hospital and a member of the steering committee. "They hold themselves accountable to practice what they do safely. There are a number of department-specific things that we train them in. We try to make safety training fun by putting it into a "Jeopardy" game show format. It's a reminder to people that awareness and education lead to safety."

And awareness has grown. When the committee was formed, employees were asked if they knew whether the hospital had a safety committee. The first year, 39 percent said they didn't. That has now fallen to 2 to 3 percent, with a 98 percent awareness rate.

In the first six months of the program, there was a 41 percent decrease in the accident report rate. The hospital was able to move out of the penalty rate from the Bureau of Worker's Compensation as a result of the efforts.

One thing the hospital has not done is gotten into an incentive-heavy program. It considered offering incentives as part of an official program, but decided against it, sticking instead to small rewards and the publishing of accident rates so employees can check the progress.

Employees from every department are involved in the monthly meeting, and Hillside educated members of the committee on how to work as a team and how to run a meeting. Leadership rotates, and the members now are nearly all from the original group.

"Prevention is key," says Hitmar. "The cost factor of physical pain, and the emotional stress to the employee and the employer can be high. Get them interested and aware of safety, and keep hitting it home with them. Developing a safety culture over time is crucial."