No one is safe from the risk of workplace injuries these days. Factory workers making repetitive movements, warehouse staffers lifting heavy objects, retailers pushing heavy boxes, office workers typing on computers for hours -- all are at risk. And of course it's not just a big-company problem. "Midsize companies have the worst injury rates," says ergonomist David Wood of Ergonomic Engineering in Pelham, Mass.
"Most companies," says Wood, "wait until there's a threat of legal action or OSHA comes in before they do anything about it. There seems to be an economy of scale. Small companies have trouble paying ergonomists' rates and can't do the initial outlay."
But outside factors are forcing the issue for some small and midsize firms. "Health insurance rates keep going up and employers don't want their people to get injured or go out on disability," says Rita Kotch, vice president of Kotch & Poliak, a Manhattan-based company that organizes the National Ergonomics Exposition and Conference. "We've started seeing smaller companies because their needs are the same as bigger companies."
Their wallets, however, are not. Small companies may not have the cash to apply to ergonomic problems, but the solutions needn't be expensive or complicated.
"You can fix your office without leaving the building," says Nick Latino, manager of safety and medical affairs at pharmaceutical manufacturer Centeon. While he was able to spend over $1 million on ergonomic solutions for the Kankakee, Ill., company, Latino has a number of creative, low-cost, ergonomically correct strategies to share with cost-conscious companies.
At the very least, "you can use a wad of paper towels for lower back support," Latino says. Empty boxes make decent-enough footrests, and a stack of folded tissue paper can work as an ad-hoc, no-cost wrist rest. Got any old phone books lying around the office? Tear off the cover and tape it to a computer monitor to form a glare screen, then use the rest of the book to raise the monitor to eye level.
"Put on your ergonomics glasses and look for employees working in contorted, awkward postures," advises Dan MacLeod, director of ergonomics at Clayton Environmental Consultants in Edison, N.J. "If you see someone hunched over to lift something, then stretching to put it on a scale, put the object on a table instead of lifting it from the floor, and put the scale on a lower surface. This sounds so obvious, but every company violates these kinds of things somehow." In one operation MacLeod evaluated, he saw employees reaching around large boxes to aim hand-held scanners at a barcode printed on the box. His solution? Move the bar code so it was easier to reach. "You have to think outside the box," he concludes.
Robina A. Gangemi was a reporter for Inc. magazine when this article was published.