In the past, workers were usually trained to perform the task and any changes made to work processes were done for reasons relating to productivity, without regard to worker comfort. For example, incorporating the assembly line into production facilities increased production rates, but necessitated that each worker in the line perform the same task or tasks all day long, often at increasing production rates. These same changes in production methods, which were often made as a result of technological advances that saved companies hundreds or thousands of dollars, are now costing companies in the form of workers' compensation claims, lost work time, and training.
Many of these technological advances require workers to perform repetitive procedures or work in positions that put a great deal of stress on the musculoskeletal system. This stress can be caused by any number of factors including repetitive motion, excessive force, mechanical stresses caused by tools or machines, poor posture, awkward positioning, lifting, vibrations, temperature extremes, and unaccustomed activity.
The cost of worker injuries and illnesses caused by these ergonomic stressors is staggering. Over one third of all workers' compensation costs are associated with musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), injuries caused by trauma to the body occurring over a period of time. A conservative estimate of the medical costs of treating one industrial case of carpal tunnel syndrome, a type of disorder affecting the wrists and hands, is about $20,000 a year.
This cost estimate does not take into consideration the costs involved with lost work time, replacement workers, and reduced productivity. Lower back pain, for example, which is often associated with improper or repeated lifting or sitting for an extended period of time, is responsible for about 1,400 lost work days per 1,000 workers every year. Only the common cold and the flu cause workers to miss more work annually.