As a trained occupational therapist working in industrial wellness, I spent many years trying to prevent hand and upper extremity injuries in manufacturing and logistics centers. That meant more job site analyses, ergonomics studies and functional capacity evaluations than I can count.
In other words, I’ve spent a lot of time analyzing how human beings move through work environments and how they affect our bodies.
While we’ve certainly made significant progress in the way we engineer workplaces to mitigate injury, the rate of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) remains high. So does the economic impact on businesses. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, MSDs are the single largest category of workplace injuries and are responsible for nearly 30% of all workers’ compensation costs. Injuries resulting from repetitive tasks (like hand-intensive work) cost U.S. businesses more than $2 billion per year.
Here’s the good news: Advanced technology is providing businesses the unprecedented ability to identify harmful movements and prevent MSD injuries. Wearable devices paired with artificial intelligence hold the potential to significantly reduce workers' comp costs for businesses and the insurance providers that protect them.
MSD injuries cost employers serious money
The median nerve begins in the neck as a group of disparate roots that form together to travel down the upper arm, across the elbow, and into the forearm. As the nerve moves through the wrist en route to the hand, it passes through a narrow gap between bone and ligament known as the carpal tunnel.
When the wrist is held in a compressed state for extended periods, the tissue surrounding the flexor tendons can swell, narrowing the carpal tunnel and putting pressure on the median nerve. The resulting reduction in blood supply and lymphatic flow can cause micro-tears, tingling, pain, weakness in the hand and, if left untreated, permanent nerve damage.
OSHA calculates that by the time a worker has had surgery and rehab to redress carpal tunnel syndrome, their employer has paid nearly $65,000 in direct and indirect costs—and that’s on the conservative side (price tags closer to $100,000 are common). Spread across a workforce of hundreds of people performing similar movements, these issues can quickly become a significant financial liability.
Carpal tunnel is far from the only concern. Cubital tunnel, radial tunnel, medial and lateral epicondylitis, thoracic outlet syndrome and many other injuries plague people who perform the repetitive physical motions common on manufacturing and logistics floors.
Technology allows businesses to get proactive
How can businesses prevent these harmful repetitive motions? One solution is wearable devices that provide real-time feedback and coaching to prevent risky movements before they cause injury. Tech-enabled hand wraps and gloves can assist the safety team in measuring, identifying and recording the frequency and directions of movements in the hand, back and shoulder. If an individual is frequently working with excessive movements in one specific direction or working at the extreme end range of motion, that becomes visible.
AI software can then assist by deploying a pre-programmed haptic or biofeedback cue. One example of a haptic is a gentle buzz that can notify an employee any time they move their hands outside a neutral, thumbs-up position. Maintaining a safer position can alleviate a lot of the maladies described above.
Other haptics, such as a reminder for workers to take a break and do a microstretch, can be employed as well. Examining the data allows safety teams to make the most accurate decision on which haptic makes the most sense for different workers.
A leading logistics and warehousing company using this technology recently observed through the data that a large subset of workers performed 70% of their hand motions in two specific directions and at the extreme end range of motion for those recorded excessive movements. These unbalanced and excessive movements corresponded with recent diagnoses of DeQuervain’s Tenosynovitis, a painful wrist condition often caused by repetitive movements in a specific direction.
Equipped with these findings, the employer conducted targeted training among the riskiest quartile of employees most prone to these unbalanced movements. The company instructed them on proper biomechanics and ergonomics, encouraging them to work in a neutral hand position. Back on the floor, the training was reinforced with haptic feedback: Any worker whose hand deviated beyond 30 degrees of the mid-range of motion point in each direction received a real-time vibration cue from the connected gloves to return to the neutral hand position.
By encouraging neutral hand position, the business saw a 38% reduction in risky movements.
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Workplace safety tech takes the guesswork out of injury prevention
Wearable devices and AI can’t replace on-site safety teams or clinical professionals trained in diagnosing and preventing injuries. But they can serve as essential tools and adjuncts to treatment in an ever-expanding technological toolbox. The safety professional is provided with more functional data that can be used to design, develop and implement objective programs and targeted coaching. And because this technology is typically expensed through an IT or facility operations monthly budget, it does not compete with health professional services.
This technology extends the safety team’s visibility to the entire workforce and ensures that vulnerable employees aren’t lost in the shuffle. It cuts down on paperwork and improves response time. It allows businesses to become more proactive, which ultimately means fewer injuries.
And the benefits don’t stop there.
It’s not hard to envision insurance companies offering premium reductions for businesses that ask their workers to wear connected devices: Show us your people are moving in a more biomechanically responsible way, and we’ll drop your rates. Compliant businesses could show the quantifiable results of stretch programs and ergonomic instruction.
I can also see insurers from a workers' comp company having therapists use wearables as a tool during functional capacity evaluations, work conditioning services and PT/OT evaluations and treatment. This would provide objective and detailed insight into how effectively an individual is following their return-to-work plan and help with compliance of the home exercise program recommendations. If range of motion can be measured more functionally and precisely to better evaluate progress, employees could get back on the floor more quickly and safely.
Ultimately, this technology takes the guesswork out of injury prevention and recovery. It provides objective data that makes decision making cleaner. And the ROI benefit is significant: The system essentially pays for itself after preventing just one or two MSD injuries. (Remember that $65,000 price tag for carpal tunnel?)
For businesses looking to mitigate risk of injury to their workforce—and the costs that come along with it—investing in safety technology is no longer a luxury. It’s a necessity