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Addressing The High Corporate Costs of Back Pain (and other MSDs)

Schoolhouse Rock! called the human body “a high powered, revved up, body machine”, but even the best of machines break down when chronically mistreated. Think about it. No matter how expensive or “high performance” a set of tires is, all four still need regular rotation and alignment in order to wear evenly.  Without proper care and maintenance, the repetitive wear and tear caused by misalignment can be just as damaging as a nail in the tire.

 Whether imposed on man or machine, subtle repeated actions done incorrectly overtime can have painful—and costly—consequences. Just as tires blow and engines die, backs, necks, and other appendages painfully flare up, causing employees to miss work, Workers’ Compensation claims go up, and employers pay the price. In fact, according to OSHA,  “The direct costs attributable to work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) total $15 to $18 billion per year, with indirect costs (such as resulting management costs or the cost of production losses) increasing the costs to employers to more than $45 billion.”

Similarly, the 2013 Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index reports that “overexertion costs businesses $14.2 billion in direct costs and accounts for more than a quarter of the overall national burden.”

When you factor in all costs, including those absorbed by the injured worker, it

Top 15 Occupations with Musculoskeletal Disorders

•  Nursing assistants
•  Laborers
•  Janitors and cleaners
•  Heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers
•  Registered nurses
•  Stock clerks and order fillers
•  Light truck or delivery services drivers
•  Maintenance and repair workers
•  Production workers
•  Retail salespersons
•  Maids and housekeeping cleaners
•  Police and sheriffs patrol officers
•  Firefighters
•  First-line supervisors of retail sales workers
•  Assemblers and fabricators


Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2011

has been found that the total costs of low-back pain in the United States exceed $100 billion per year. [1]

In addition, reports have shown that the average cost of a back injury related workers comp claim can be $40,000 - $80,000 per employee.

Needless to say, back pain and other MSDs are not a small problem. Consider these facts:

  • According to the World Health Organization: “The lifetime prevalence of non-specific (common) back pain is estimated at 60% to 70% in industrialized countries.
  • The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons reports:  “In 2004, 25.9 million persons lost an average of 7.2 days of work due to back pain — a total of 186.7 million work days lost that year.”
  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that “overexertion and bodily reaction” accounted for the largest percentages of missed work – particularly among laborers and freight, stock and material movers and nursing assistants.  To be specific, they state that, “of the 443,560 sprain, strain and tear cases reported in 2012, 63% were the result of overexertion and bodily reaction.” Of that 63% – the highest majority were to the back (36%), with the next highest being the shoulder (13%) and the knee (12%).

There is no question that the problem is real, the bigger question, is, “what can employers do to turn the percentages in their favor?”

In many cases, the answer lies in ergonomics.

In its publication, Prevention of Musculoskeletal Disorders in the Workplace, The United States Department of Labor, Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) emphasizes that “implementing an ergonomic process has been effective in reducing the risk of developing MSDs in industries as diverse as construction, food processing, office jobs, healthcare, beverage delivery, and warehousing.”

They offer the following seven tips on establishing an effective ergonomic process.

  • Provide Management Support
  • Involve Workers
  • Provide Training
  • Identify Problems
  • Encourage Early Reporting of MSD Symptoms
  • Implement Solutions to Control Hazards
  • Evaluate Progress

All of this, of course, starts with understanding the true source of the problem, and understanding that the source is often a combination of factors. For example, as can be seen in William S. Marras’ video, Back Pain and Your Brain, in some cases it is not only the repetitive action itself that is the problem, but the stress levels under which the action is being performed.  

At The Ohio State University Spine Research Institute, our ergonomics and biodynamics team goes beyond basic ergonomics, putting significant emphasis on the importance of using a systems approach to understanding injury causation.  This includes considering physical work exposures (e.g., how heavy something is, how often it is handled), the organizational environment in which the work is done (e.g., how much control do employees have over their work design, how much stress is involved, social support), and influences of the employees themselves (e.g., age, gender, body size, and genetics). 

Taking these factors into consideration and leveraging our evidence-based research, functional diagnostics and the unique person-specific biomechanical models we’ve developed, we are able to pinpoint the exact cause of the injury so we are able to provide cost-effective personalized solutions that address the problem in a purposeful way.

These proven processes have helped industry leaders reduce claims by over 90%. If you are interested in learning how to reduce claims for your organization, please give us a call at 614-219-6063 or email us and we will be in touch.

[1]  Katz, Jeffrey N. "Lumbar Disc Disorders and Low Back Pain: Socioeconomic Factors and Consequences." The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery, Inc. . Print.