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January 8, 1998

Back and arm injuries at work: $2.7 billion and rising

TUMWATER - Work-related back and arm injuries in Washington took a $2.7 billion toll on the state workers' compensation system from 1989 through 1996 and kept employees off work for 24 million days. The lost work time had the same effect as removing 12,250 employees from the workforce each year.

The scientific study released today by the Department of Labor & Industries analyzed the costs of back and arm injuries and identified high-risk industries. At highest risk are employees in:

  • Nursing homes.
  • Construction.
  • Wood products manufacturing.
  • Logging.
  • Sawmills.
  • Wholesale meat dealers.
  • Fruit and vegetable packing.

"This study provides compelling evidence that preventable back and arm injuries hurt people and profits," said L&I Director Gary Moore. "Business, labor and L&I have to step up efforts to protect workers and keep these injuries from happening."

Moore said prevention must focus on safety and ergonomics. Ergonomics protects workers' bodies from the effects of repetitive strain by adjusting work processes and methods to fit workers.

According to the study, workers who use their bodies to lift, carry, push or pull heavy objects or people have the highest risk of back and shoulder injuries. The risk of repetitive strain injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome is highest among workers who perform repetitive tasks, for example in wholesale meat.

The study also cautioned that assembly workers in the temporary services industry are experiencing more injuries and an increasing rate of injury as that workforce sector expands. Temporary assembly workers put together wood, metal, plastic or masonry products or load and unload freight.

Back and arm injuries accounted for 36 percent of all workers' compensation claims over the eight years. The data excluded about one-third of Washington workers in self-insured companies.

Gradual onset injuries (cumulative trauma disorders)
For the first time, L&I also segregated claims for "gradual onset injuries." Unlike a sudden injury, such as a crushed hand, a gradual onset injury develops slowly over time. The analysis showed certain industries' risk of gradual onset injury is higher than their overall risk. For example, nursing homes ranked 13th in arm injuries and ranked second for gradual onset arm injuries.

Washington State Gradual Onset Injuries
Backs
Washington State Gradual Onset Injuries
Arms
  67% of all back claims 36% of all arm claims
  55% of direct compensation costs for back injuries 42% of direct compensation costs for arm injuries
  57% of days off work for back injuries 47% of the days off work for arm injuries

"The risk factors for gradual onset injuries can be found in many different industries," said Barbara Silverstein, Ph.D., research director for L&I's Safety and Health Assessment and Research for Prevention (SHARP) program. "Employers and workers need to understand the risks and minimize those found in their workplaces."

 
Risk Factors for Gradual Onset Injuries
Backs
Risk Factors for Gradual Onset Injuries
Arms
  Heavy lifting, carrying and pushing High repetition
  Repetitive lifting High force
  Handling objects far from the body Extreme or prolonged awkward postures
  Handling objects above the shoulder, below knuckle height or in a twisted position High job demands with little control over the way the job is done
  Handling objects over obstructions  
Whole body vibration (operating a jack hammer, for example).  

Other findings

The L&I study also investigated claims by body area - shoulder, elbow, hand/wrist and back - and by specific, common diagnoses. Those diagnoses were carpal tunnel syndrome (wrist/hand), rotator cuff trauma (tendons around shoulder), epicondylitis (tennis elbow) and sciatica (radiating back pain).

The study established incidence rates for the four body areas and the four specific diagnoses. Incidence rates show the number of new claims per 10,000 full-time equivalent (FTE) workers per year. For example, the incidence rate for carpal tunnel syndrome was 28.2 claims per 10,000 FTE per year.

"These findings show the magnitude and cost of these injuries. This data is needed to shape policy decisions on workplace safety," Silverstein said.

The report concluded that gradual onset back and arm injuries would cost $23.5 billion per year, if Washington state figures were applied to the nation as a whole. The national estimate applies Washington's incidence rate and average claims costs to the national workforce.

Work-related Disorders of the Back and Upper Extremity in Washington State, 1989-1996 was based on data from 484,551 claims for injuries to backs, shoulders, elbows, hands and wrists. Click here to see the study summary. To request a full report, call 1-888-66-SHARP.

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Information about a related study on moving nursing home residents

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