In a normal year, work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), also known as soft tissue injuries, account for roughly 34% of lost work-days in the U.S. and one-third of the dollars spent on workers compensation claims. But this was anything but a normal year. A perfect storm of weight gain, more sedentary lifestyles, increased stressors, hours spent hunched over kitchen table on Zoom calls and a booming e-commerce industry have many environmental health and safety experts projecting a surge in new reported injuries as we come out of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Add the effects of a nationwide labor shortage that has existing employees working longer hours and hiring managers compromising their standards to bring in people that might not be the right fit for the job and the stage is set for a wave of workplace injury crises.
Against this backdrop of increased injury risk and rising healthcare and workers’ compensation costs, employers need to find better ways to intervene early, treat warning signs more effectively and evaluate pre-existing injuries to not only avoid a surge in new comp claims but to better protect their employees. Healthier employees are safer employees and we’re currently headed down a path where both health and safety are at risk.
Reconditioning the Industrial Athlete
In one recent survey, 89% of workplace safety experts said their essential workers were experiencing the same to significantly more stress and muscular discomfort in the pandemic and 95% said they expect workplace MSDs to either stay the same or increase this year. Weight gain is playing a big role in that. According to research conducted by the American Psychological Association, 61% of Americans experienced undesired weight changes over the course of 2020. Several studies have examined the issue and put the average weight gain at somewhere between 7.8 pounds to upwards of 29 pounds.
That’s created the ideal host environment for soft tissue injuries. People with a body mass index between 30 and 35 – a group that now includes roughly 40% of American adults – are four to five times more likely to get arthritis in their knees. It’s also been shown that overweight and obese workers experience injuries on the job 25% to 68% more frequently than normal weight workers.
Two factors compounding this trend are the nationwide labor shortage, which has now grown record levels, with over 9 million open jobs in the U.S, and the runaway demand for warehouse workers and drivers linked to the boom in e-commerce. We’ve all seen this one first-hand as armies of Amazon vans double park in our neighborhoods, their drivers sprinting from door-to-door carrying awkward boxes. It should come as little surprise, then, that there were 5.9 serious incidents for every 200,000 hours worked by Amazon employees last year, according to OSHA data. About 40% of work-related injuries at Amazon are MSDs.
Not Just a Blue-Collar Problem
While warehouse and delivery work might seem like an obvious source of MSD risk for large employers, the problem is no longer limited to these classifications of employees. Many of those office workers who’ve been huddled over their laptops at the kitchen table or staring at Zoom screens for several hours a day are reporting significantly higher rates of neck and back pain. According to a survey conducted by the American Chiropractic Association, 92% of chiropractors reported an increase in patients with neck pain, back pain or other musculoskeletal issues following the nationwide shift to remote work.
Employers Need to Intervene Early
The potential costs to employers stemming from these injuries is staggering. Total direct and indirect healthcare costs associated with MSDs were estimated by OSHA to be between $45 and $54 billion per year before the pandemic. Those numbers are not going to get any lower unless employers find better ways to intervene early, treat warning signs more effectively, evaluate pre-existing injuries and offer targeted treatment programs.
Too often, the solution comes after the injury in the form of prescription drugs or surgery. Research from Optum suggests that the combination of pharmaceutical and surgical treatment for MSDs will increase $73 billion by 2024. Meanwhile, a precise diagnosis is unknown in upwards of 80% to 90% of MSD patients.
There is no excuse for that. The tools exist today to conduct robust, individual MSD diagnoses, enabling targeted, site-specific treatment recommendations that improve outcomes and return-to work times. It is the right thing to do for employee health and the bottom line, but it will require a fundamental shift from the wait-and-see approach that has failed for so long to a more proactive stance on preventive care.
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